Fantods: An ill-defined state of nervous excitement, irritability, or distress. Usually found in the plural form. Origin unknown; possibly a variation of fantigue, origin also unknown, although Webster's 3rd International Dictionary suggests that it may be a blend of fantastic and fatigue.
On his excellent website World Wide Words, Michael Quinion writes that the first published appearance of fantods was in an 1839 book, and that Mark Twain was partial to the word (which he spelled fan-tods):
Many Americans will know this word, though it’s rare in other parts of the English-speaking world. It seems one can’t have just the one fantod — they always arrive in multiples. Modern writers may speak of somebody having a case of the fantods, or hyperbolically the flaming fantods or the swiveling fantods, descriptions of somebody in a state of extreme nervous hysteria or unreasonable excitement (as in the Atlanta Journal in March 1999: “He is beside himself, in flaming fantods, screeching histrionics in the direst of foreboding and doom”).
"Many" Americans may know it, but I was only dimly aware of fantods until recently, when I began reading Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace's magnum opus—and then I encountered the word twice within five pages. On page 45:
Roaches give him the howling fantods.
And on page 50:
And God knows she'd rather have Hal having a few glasses of beer every so often than absorbing God alone knows what sort of esoteric designer compounds with reptilian Michael Pemulis and trail-of-slime-leaving James Struck, both of whom give Avril a howling case of the maternal fantods.
Fantods isn't the only unfamiliar word I've stumbled upon in the novel's first 60 pages. In fact, I'm keeping a dictionary nearby and have started a list:
Enfilade: In architecture, a suite of rooms formally aligned with each other.
Pargeted: Coated with ornamental plaster.
Apocope: Abbreviation of a word by omitting the final sound or sounds.
No doubt the list will grow exponentially by the time I'm finished: the narrative is 981 pages long, followed by almost 100 pages of footnotes. One footnote (#24) spans more than eight pages. Several footnotes have their own footnotes.
Why Infinite Jest? And why now? Well, I've long admired the work of David Foster Wallace—who committed suicide last year at age 46—but I've read only his nonfiction. A friend of mine who actually completed Infinite Jest swears that it's well worth the effort. And now comes Infinite Summer, an invitation to "join endurance bibliophiles around the world in reading Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009, June 21st to September 22nd." Nothing like a little challenge to fire up the enthusiasm.
I drew encouragement from Dave Eggers (no slouch himself in the prose department), who wrote the reassuring introduction to the paperback edition of IJ two years before Wallace's death. Eggers writes:
David Foster Wallace has long straddled the worlds of difficult and not-as-difficult, with most readers agreeing that his essays are easier to read than his fiction, and his journalism most accessible of all. But while much of his work is challenging, his tone, in whatever form he's exploring, is rigorously unpretentious. A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin who, just when he's about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good lowbrow joke. Wallace, like many other writers who could be otherwise considered too smart for their own good—Bellow comes to mind—is, like Bellow, always aware of the reader, of the idea that books are essentially meant to entertain, and so almost unerringly balances his prose to suit.
If you're game, check out the Infinite Summer website (which offers some shorter DFW works as warm-up exercises) and follow Infinite Summer on Twitter.
Oh, and fantods? The word is now so closely associated with David Foster Wallace that a website dedicated to him and his work is called The Howling Fantods.
I am embarrassed to admit that I hadn't known that many of the deliciously macabre works of Edward Gorey (1925-2000) were published by The Fantod Press, which appears to have been Gorey's own imprint. F Is for Fantods, whose cover is reproduced above, is a bibliography of Gorey's Fantod Press publications.
Oh, fun! I haven't read IJ in many years. I may dig out my dusty copy and join the "Infinite Summer" fun!
Posted by: La Belette Rouge | June 15, 2009 at 07:58 AM
Posted by: Jon Carroll | June 15, 2009 at 10:40 AM
An online summer,"Book Club!" Wonderful! As in the movie, "Fight Club" we may be noticing other readers at checkout counters and bus stops. Sun-faded bookmarks in shirt pockets,bleary eyes, sunburn on the backs of thumbs (from holding books open on the beach), and most telling of all that thousand page bulge in briefcases,shopping sacks,designer bags, packpacks and beach bags. You will know them.
Posted by: Nick | June 19, 2009 at 07:14 AM