Words, Words, Words

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

Again I wake up in the small hours, but instead of waking up with a snippet from a Vachel Lindsay poem in my head, I wake up with a word. The word is “rollicking” and all of a sudden I dislike it intensely. “What a stupid word!” I hiss into the darkness: “What a stupid, fatuous word!” You don’t hear the word in conversation, thank goodness, unless someone is being intentionally fey, and I for one would put a quick stop to that conversation. No, it’s a word that belongs only in book jacket blurbs, and even there it is barely tolerable (“Snortlebee has written yet another [not simply “another,” but “yet another”] rollicking comic adventure that will have you laughing until the tears come.”). It’s a cheap, dishonest word, for one thing, a word that lets you know that the writer doesn’t give a rap for Snortlebee’s book and has been leaned on by their mutual publisher to commit this faux rave (next year, Snortlebee will be pressured to return the favor). Seems to me that even the threadbare British of “rattling” is preferable (“a rattling good yarn” runs the cliché). The verb is “to rollick,” and my Webster’s says that it is a portmanteau stitched together from the front end of “romp” and the hind end of “frolic.” “Rollicking” is, of course, the participle, hard at work as an adjective. To rollick is “to act in a careless, frolicsome manner; to behave in a free, hearty, gay [in the old sense] or jovial way.”

I am not alone here. In a review of Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, we find that Thomas De Quincey couldn’t stand “unreliable” (seems innocuous to me, but then I’m not an opium addict), and Coleridge could not abide “talented.” I always thought “utilize” pompous and unnecessary. I have read that it can mean employing something that was designed for a different purpose (“The rack was broken so the torturer utilized several dozen diving weights”) but I am not persuaded. And have you noticed that most of our gas stations advertise “unleaded” gas even though they haven’t sold leaded gas for decades? They mean “regular,” but don’t know it.

I tossed and turned for a couple of hours. When I finally roused myself and accepted the day, I felt somewhat abashed to have expended so much energy abusing a word. But words are important. In fact, they are the basic coin of the intellectual realm, and if some of that coinage seems to you debased, you should say so. Harrumph.

I should add (so I will) that some fancy words are so fancy that they are fun, not self-important. I don’t like “utilize,” but if you use “splendiferous” instead of “splendid,” we know that you are being goofy and inviting us to join you in the goofiness. That’s ok. More than ok.

We need more of that. Splendiferous sprang from splendid; I don’t know where “cockamamie” came from but I love it dearly. I love “serendipitous,” too. And so should you. “Pusillanimous,” the opposite of magnanimous, is another good one. But you needn’t be a Latin snob: you really can’t beat “smarmy.” Doesn’t the very sound of the word tell you everything you need to know about that sanctimonious, oleaginous (more good ones!) brother-in-law of yours?

Bill Bryson has thought (“long and hard” rather overstates it) about words, and one of his gripes is that some lovely words are wasted on what they are assigned to describe. “Semolina,” he writes in I’m a Stranger Here Myself, “is not a pudding at all but a slow stately dance much practiced in Spanish-speaking countries and widely used to bore tourists. (The same dance in Portugal is called a fajita).” I couldn’t agree more. The idea behind “grapefruit” dumbfounds him as it does me. And put “pineapple” in that same basket.

And some words are troublemakers, is all. I should certainly know what “exiguous” means after all these years, but I always have to look it up. As for “reify,” just forget it. Not only do I have to look the word up every time I run across it, but I can never get my mind around the definition when I do. I am in the elite minority that knows that it’s “minuscule” and not “miniscule” (and “pabulum,” not “pablum”*), but opportunities for showing off that trivia are few, which is probably for the best.

What is the most beautiful word in the language? “Mother” is often proposed, but that misses the point. Wonderful connotation, certainly, but the sound of it is, well, too close to “smother,” and maybe the similarity tells us something. No, we want words like “lullaby” (connotation AND sound), “halcyon,” “oriole,” “ethereal,” “gravitas.” Words that enthrall, words that sing, words that thunder.

Along that line, I have always thought that the most beautiful, the most ethereal, name for a woman would be “Diarrhea” (“You look ravishing tonight, Diarrhea!”).

No? Ok, pick your own. Have the last word.

*”Pablum” is the brand name.

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