I'm not a believer in "The Twilight Zone" with the da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da and all, but there's some kind of synchronicity thing going on. The center of the weirdness — the hotspot where mysterious tendrils tangle — is the daily crossword.
Basically, the rule is this: If a word suddenly figures prominently in my daily life, that word will pop up, within a day or two, on the crossword that runs in this newspaper. Take the other day when I was trying to figure out what to do with all the tomatoes that keep ripening faster than I can eat them.
Figuring a cold soup would hit the spot, I found a recipe for gazpacho en olla. In the next morning's paper, the clue was "earthen pot." The word was olla.
Another day I'd come across an old Garrison Keillor routine about what if the French composer Georges Bizet had been born in Omaha. The next day's crossword had the clue "composer of 'Carmen.' " You guessed it.
This is practically a daily occurrence.
So Thursday I'm in the middle of the Battle of the Ants, an annual Medford event. The little black crawlies had sent scouts on recon sorties a few days earlier. Then, in the wee hours, they attacked in force.
When I got up, the cat's dish was teeming with them. Zoom out. Streaming across the kitchen from the bowl was a column of ants in their thousands. I tracked their ranks out the kitchen and through the dining room and into the living room and out the front door. They were marching about six abreast in a close-order drill that would have warmed the heart of a Marine Corps drill instructor.
Around here some people call these tiny black ants sugar ants. Others call them pissants. A bit of online research on family formicidae, the ant world, quickly revealed that the tiny black ants are not sugar ants, despite their fondness for the refined white death. That customer, Camponotus consobrinus, is a relatively large ant, a two-tone job with an orange body and a black head.
While a term such as "pissant" may lack the precision of, say, Camponotus consobrinus, it turns out to be closer to the mark than "sugar ant." Pissants are any of a large group of ant species also known as wood ants. They build nests using needles and straw from pine trees that combine with the formic acid they produce in their bodies to produce the characteristic aroma from which their common name derives.
Wikipedia declares flatly that, "the word pissant can refer to any small ant that infests a home."
Beyond the six-legged world, various sources trace the word's use as a slang pejorative meaning unimportant and annoying. In fact, the first meaning of pissant given by thefreedictionary.com is "one that is insignificant" (the second meaning is "an ant").
I first encountered the slang sense in print in Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Cat's Cradle," in which a character delivers this definition:
"A pissant is somebody who thinks he's so damn smart, he can never keep his mouth shut. No matter what anybody says, he's got to argue with it. You say you like something, and, by God, he'll tell you why you're wrong to like it. A pissant does his best to make you feel like a boob all the time. No matter what you say, he knows better."
Now, that's spin, and this character has his motivations, and we shouldn't assume they're Vonnegut's in the way that people quote lines Shakespeare puts in his characters' mouths as if they represent the Bard's personal thoughts. In any event, Vonnegut's usage prefigured that of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who later called Vietnam as "a piddling pissant little country."
It all depends on your viewpoint. Denizens of Third World nations don't think of themselves as pissants (see: Afghanistan, et al). And six-legged pissants don't act like they think they're insignificant. They come on like the monsters in "Them," the old atomic monster movie, their lockstep columns reeking of a triumphalism not unlike those giant swastikas formed by thousands of marching soldiers in a Leni Riefenstahl Nazi propaganda film.
So what does all this have to do with those coincidences of daily life and the daily crossword? Just this. On Thursday, the very day I took arms against a sea of invading pissants, the clue for 33-across was "ant." The answer was a word that goes back at least 800 years, the ancestor of pissant: "pismire." Look it up on mirriam-webster.com. The definition is: ant.
Even in its insect persuasion, the word may hint at something larger. Walt Whitman wrote:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren.
As they come marching into the kitchen, we might quibble with the part about the pismire.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.