Oubliette: A dungeon whose only entrance or exit is a trapdoor in its ceiling. Pronounced bl-t. From French oublier, to forget. Oubliette’s acceptance in English is generally credited to Sir Walter Scott, who used it in Ivanhoe (1819): “The place was utterly dark—the oubliette, as I suppose, of their accursed convent.”
Fans of suspense literature and cinema will no doubt have vivid recollections of the oubliette scene in The Silence of the Lambs.
Oubliette makes a more recent appearance in a feature story in the Summer 2011 issue of California Magazine, the publication of the University of California Alumni Association. Here’s how Vicki Haddock begins her profile of a Cal alumna:
Wendy Northcutt ’91 has made a host of obscure people famous, and although very few lived to savor their notoriety, she anticipates one day sharing their dubious honor. It almost happened when a recent heat wave gave her the idea to “air-condition” her sweltering home: She pried up an oubliette floor grate in her hallway, intending to install a fan to suck up the basement’s cooler air. But she left to answer the phone, and hours later she strode back down the hall and obliviously stepped into the gaping hole. In the milliseconds as her body swooshed down, she thought “Oh nooooooooooo! I’m gonna win my own Darwin Award ….”
Haddock notes, a couple of paragraphs down, that Northcutt “managed to wriggle out of the grate hole and summon help, escaping with a broken leg, but life and reproductive ability intact.”
Northcutt, who majored in molecular biology at Berkeley, launched the Darwin Awards during a postgraduate stint in a Stanford laboratory while she waited for experiments to run their course. To pass the time, she began cataloguing “imbecilic demises” and secured the darwinawards.com domain in 1993. Haddock clarifies: “Though she didn’t coin the term—the Usenet archives list a 1985 use of the term about a man who shook a vending machine until it toppled over on him—it was Northcutt who shaped the Darwin Awards into a pop culture sensation.” The Darwin Awards website, in case you’ve somehow not noticed, is a “chronicle of entertaining demises” that commemorates “those who assist natural selection by removing themselves from the gene pool.”
Do read the rest of Haddock’s lively profile of “self-proclaimed klutz” Wendy Northcutt, and also visit the Darwin Awards website, where, as of this writing, planking—last week’s Fritinancy word of the week—is prominently featured on the home page.