Phinneywood’s “Word House” is part of what makes our neighborhood unique

by | Sep 7, 2021

Story and Photos by Gabe Murphy, special to the Blog

I walk the streets of our neighborhood frequently, reveling in the colorful trees, flowers, and people I encounter. I generally don’t take pictures on these walks, but when I do it’s often of a word; a word written in large white letters in the median strip in front of Karen Vogel’s house.

The words captured in my photo album include: anaphora (June 2018); oniero (Jan 2019); moggie (May 2019); sastrugi (June 2019); pelorus (July 2019); currawong (July 2019). Nearly all of them were, at first, unfamiliar to me. These words were unfamiliar to Karen too; that’s why she writes them down, first in a spreadsheet on her computer and then with white marble chips out front.

Karen’s fascination with words began in childhood – her mom, an English teacher, and her father, an electrical engineer, encouraged it. Since September of 2000, Karen has enabled others to learn about and remember a subset of the unfamiliar words she encounters. The first word to appear in front of her house, ’lamella’, refers to the thin membrane layer of mushroom. The most recent word, on display at 7027 2nd Ave NW, is digitigrade. (I puzzled over digitigrade for some time – turns out the ‘TI’ had been accidentally transformed into an ‘H’ while Karen and a neighbor were having fun in the front yard) Many of the words trigger particular memories for Karen and others – stories, for example, of connections within or between families.

My family vividly remembers the night that I suggested to my very grumpy daughter that we search the neighborhood for gold. She was, thankfully, intrigued by the idea, so after dinner we grabbed a flashlight, a stick for displacing brush, and a small satchel to transport any treasure we might find. The satchel was empty when we returned home, but we’d encountered Karen’s new ‘word of the week’ and were eager to look up ormolu, the unfamiliar, odd-sounding word. We won’t forget that evening, or ormolu’s definition, any time soon because ormolu refers to ‘a mosaic gold. an alloy of copper and zinc used to imitate gold’. We’d found a form of gold after all!

Karen encourages folks to visit and submit their own words for consideration. She focuses on uncommonly used English words composed of eight or fewer letters; a decent fraction of the words she finds interesting enough to write out are related to geography or body parts, some are just fun to pronounce. Feel free to slip a piece of paper with your idea into the slot on her front door!

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