Liberating Language

I’ve nothing against baseball, though I confess I’ve never watched a complete World Series. I enjoyed following our football and basketball teams in high school and college, but I’ve never attended a professional game in either sport. Years ago I could score a tennis match or round of golf, but those days are gone and I don’t regret them. In short, I’m a terrible sports fan.

On the other hand, I adore Super Bowl parties.  The food’s great, the crowd’s congenial and the atmosphere’s relaxed. In 2009, a friend with Pittsburgh connections sent me a Terrible Towel and I went to the party as a temporary Steelers fan. As it turned out, team allegiance mattered not a whit when it came to enjoying the highlights of the day – including the broadcasters in the booth. Everyone watching agreed Al Michaels and John Madden were a winning combination. Always humorous, their commentary was sharp and insightful, though no one paid them much attention unless there was a disputed call or an especially noteworthy play.

All that changed in the game’s second half, when a player took off on a medium-sized run of perhaps fifteen or twenty yards. At the end, Michaels said, “Well, he ran that one with alacrity”.  Silence enveloped the room as everyone turned to look at the screen and three people demanded in unison, “Alacrity?”

It was an appropriate word, properly used and perfectly in context. Still, alacrity seemed to be doing its own version of broken-field running as it forged its way through clusters of declarative sentences and monosyllabic comments, four unexpected syllables that stopped an entire party in its tracks.

I think of that experience now and then, especially when I decide to give the boundaries of language a little shove. When I chose to include the word skry in my poem The Grammarian in Winter, I wasn’t certain of the word’s meaning even when it came to mind and demanded to be used. It’s an unusual word, with archaic roots and alternate spellings. It’s almost never heard in casual conversation, unless you’re running with a crowd that casts entrails behind the garage or attends Wicca workshops on the weekend. But it’s a good word, a memorable word, and I was happy to give it a home where it could serve a beautiful purpose. Still, people were curious. “Skry?” they asked. “Skry?”

Not long after my experience with skry, another blogger used the word exemplars, referring to representative pieces of needlework. I hadn’t heard or read the word in ages, but a few days later I bumped into it a second time, finding it used to describe the film Slumdog Millionaire as “a fantastic exemplar of the rags-to-riches story line”.

It’s a common phenomenon. We meet a word for the first time, and soon we’re finding it everywhere. It’s as though the word itself – poor little skry, or the dignified and classic exemplar – has escaped the dictionary and is out running the country unsupervised. The more I think about it, the funnier it becomes. I imagine all those hapless words just waiting for someone to come along and bail them out of the Oxford Annotated or Webster’s, pleading their case as though they’ve been unjustly imprisoned and not allowed a phone call.

Good word-advocates, like the Louisiana ladies shown above on their way to the Bayou Dularge bookmobile, could be busy. The potential pool of  words waiting to be liberated is overwhelming. Over 47,000 archaic or obsolete words are included in the Oxford English dictionary, give or take a few hundred still being brabbled over, and of course there are all those “other” words that are supposed to be a normal part of our language but which mostly just lie about, bored to tears in cheap novels or suffocating under the weight of unreadable dissertations.

Teachers like to distinguish between passive and active vocabulary – words we understand versus words we actually use.  It’s said that educated adults will recognize between 50,000 and 250,000 words. How many of those words are used in speaking or writing is a different issue.  Estimates of the size of a person’s active vocabulary vary wildly, from 10% to 90% of a person’s passive vocabulary. Assuming the lower end of the scale, 10% of 50,000 available words would be a working vocabulary of 5,000 words. If we take a middling course and assume 50% usage of 100,000 words, that still is a vocabulary of only 50,000 words.

Fifty thousand words sounds like quite a list, but would skry be included? Probably not. Exemplar? Perhaps, but only if the Brits were around. Alacrity? People watching the Superbowl recognized it, but I’m sure it had been a while since anyone watching the game used the word. Sometimes I ask myself, “What words have I been neglecting?” and the answers can be interesting. Whatever happened to pernicious? What about voluble, exigent and substitutionary? Has anyone seen internecine lately, or know where concomitant is hiding out?

On one level, this is pure silliness. On another, it’s an issue to be taken seriously.  The more words we have at our disposal, the greater our ability to describe the world around us, create new worlds or shape the world we’re given. “Give it to me in words of one syllable,” someone says, meaning they want you to make it understandable.  But there are times when single-syllable words can’t make it understandable.  They haven’t sufficient depth, breadth or nuance to communicate what needs saying. To limit ourselves in language is to risk using the wrong word because we don’t have the right word, the true word, the one word necessary to turn the key in the world’s lock and reveal us to ourselves.

It’s become a commonplace to describe language as a tool. Like hammers, chainsaws and levers, word-tools certainly do help us accomplish the routine, utilitarian tasks of life. But if language helps us hammer home a point or cut through a tangled argument, it also can serve as a palette of nuance, a chisel for carving meaning from blocked understanding, a rosined bow to draw across a taut and tuned reality. We learn language, use language and love language not only because we want to “do”, but even more because we want to “be”, and it is language that calls us into being.

In a world marked by linguistic reductionism –  the acronyms of Twitter and text, the determined dumbing-down of school requirements, the twisting of language by politicians and the willingness of publishers to market to the lowest common denominator – it’s worth remembering that our forebears were men and women who opened frontiers and built a country with books as well as with wagons and plows.  Perhaps the time has come to reclaim that heritage: to read, write and speak freely, to revel in the richness of language and rebel against those who would diminish and distort its power in our lives.

Perhaps the time has come to free some words, in the service of our world.

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, just click below. And please – no Reblogging. Thanks!

80 thoughts on “Liberating Language

    1. montucky,

      Well, better misplaced than lost, I suppose!

      One of the delights of coming to your site is the creative use of language in naming of so many of the flowers. Just in today’s post you have “creeping charlie”, “field balm” and “fairybells”. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to discover something entirely new and have the opportunity to name it?

      Now that I think of it, the power of naming is a slightly different issue but no less important. Anyone who doubts that should give the first chapter of Genesis a quick read!


  1. I love this – I love to make words up, or combine already-there words. I used to tell my students (when they said, ‘that’s not a word”) that it was a new word – a neologism – ha!
    I think your idea of giving ‘the boundaries of language a little shove’ is absolutely brilliant!

    1. julie,

      Those made-up words are fun – especially when they take root among friends or within a family and are used on a regular basis.
      There were a few words that took on life and were passed down through generations of my family because of my dear great-great-aunt who was given to malapropisms. I’ll still say “tempus fidgets”, or talk about someone going “bersmerk”. People just look at me.

      One of my favorite quotations is from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose well-known words ring true: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”. Expand our language, expand our world!


  2. I was delighted, simply delighted to learn the word “ostensibly” back in college. I had read a friend’s paper that had scored quite highly. When I read that word in his paper, I asked him what it meant. Although I know I haven’t used it in my blog, I have used it in papers, presentations and proposals. It’s a great “connector” of ideas.

    Sometimes in writing a comment, a word will bubble up from I don’t know where. I have to ask myself, “Is the way I worded this what I really want to say to this audience?” Is the comment ostensibly for the writer, or am I just being pedantic or precocious?” I love articulate ideas, well-stated, precise, rich in vocabulary. Circumlocution can be fun, but it is “beating around the bush” I think and wordy. It has its place in a foreign language classroom to repeat and restate ideas for language learners. Love this post.

    1. Georgette,

      Your reference to “articulate ideas, well-stated [and] precise” reminded me that in junior high we moved from simple vocabulary drills to “vocabulary and diction”. There’s an old-fashioned word for you! But diction – the choice and arrangement of words – is fully as important as a rich vocabulary.

      Most people have endured enough obfuscation (!) to last them a lifetime. The problem isn’t just “big words”. It’s piling words higher and deeper just for the sake of more words – poor diction – that leads to problems. I wonder if students still diagram sentences? We did, and it helped with diction as well as with grammatical construction.

      Your mention of precision in language also raises the thorny issue of people who intentionally mis-use words, to veil their true intent and meaning. I suppose I don’t have to mention that we’ll have plenty of opportunity to observe that between now and the November election.

      I’ve thought for years that any word, big or small, complicated or simple, is capable of functioning as a window or a brick. Whenever I’m unsure about using a particular word, I just ask myself – will it help my reader see my meaning more clearly, or will it block the view?


  3. Oh, you tickled my fancy with this post, Linda. I only learned the meaning of alacrity a couple years ago when a retired female captain found me on the web and explained to me how she has developed her business called With Alacrity – Assistance Dogs of Colorado. It’s a great word, indeed.

    And then Dotter signed up for a “New Word of the Day” feature online several years ago and proceeded to use her new vocabulary in daily conversation. She’s always been a word horse. All of my children have made up their own words for things, and one of my favorites is the most recent invention by Termite: “bagglers”. I think I’ll write a post about that and let you wait until then to find out what it means!

    But the thought that your post sparked in me that I most want to share with you is this: When I watch old English films (as in British) or read very old novels, I am really impressed with the use of one word that expresses succinctly what the speaker is trying to convey. We could actually express in one word what now takes two to three sentences made up of shorter words to convey. With the increasing popularity of tweeting and texting, there is one thing we will never have to worry about our society becoming, and that is altiloquent, as sobering as that fact may be. (Even now there is a red line under that word as being misspelled because the WordPress spell check dictionary does not recognize that fantastic word!)

    So, my dear, you are on a writing roll and I’m really enjoying your offerings. There must be a word for that sentiment somewhere. I’m off to find it. Carry on!

    1. Wendy,

      “Altiloquent” is a new one for me. I suppose I wouldn’t mind being thought “high-sounding”, but I surely hope I never become pompous!

      “Bagglers” has a great sound – like a word you’d find in Charles Dickens. I’ve got a couple of images and definitions in my mind, but I’ll be patient and wait. Given what you’ve shared with us about your kids, I’m sure Termite’s definition is creative (and maybe a little crazy!)

      Your comments about the British films and classic literature really strike home. We used to have a common “cultural vocabulary”, too. Presidents, preachers and commencement speakers could make Biblical or literary references, and everyone knew what they meant.

      I can remember my grandmother standing over her laundry, turning the clothes over in the tub and saying, “Boil, boil, toil and trouble, fire burn, and caldron bubble.” She didn’t have the quotation exactly right, but we all knew she was talking about Shakespeare’s witches. When I met MacBeth in school, it was like having Grandma right there in class with me.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this, but it doesn’t surprise me. You’re pretty good at word-wrangling yourself. ;)


  4. Great post, Linda! Both my husband and I take pleasure in learning new words and slipping them into conversation (at least with each other), so I completely understand the fun of skry and the rest. And you’re right: “We learn language, use language and love language not only because we want to “do”, but even more because we want to “be”, and it is language that calls us into being.” I think right there is why I love words.

    1. Emily,

      The line you quoted lies very near my heart in a number of ways. One thing it points to is the role of others in our experience of language. Words alone don’t call us into being – for that to happen, another speaker is required. That speaker might be a friend, a stranger, an author, an enemy – but in the speaking and listening, language comes alive.


  5. When I was teaching college English courses three years ago, I had a peer review conducted by a woman about a third my age. Most of her comments were positive, but she did point out that during the class she monitored I had used the words “inexorable” and “portent.” She said most of the students probably didn’t know those words. In fact, she said she could read in the faces of some of the students that they didn’t know those words. She didn’t recommend that students whose faces she found so legible should ask me what those words meant or that they should look up those words in a dictionary — even an on-line dictionary. She suggested that I should use words that would be familiar to an 18-year-old.

    Meanwhile, I will be chuckling all day over the image of a word that “has escaped the dictionary and is out running the country unsupervised.”

    And thanks for “brabbled,” which I hadn’t met before today. I’ll be sure to slip that one into a conversation.

    1. Charles,

      You may have chuckled over my peripatetic words, but I’m still chuckling over your “peer” review. How wonderful, that she was able to scry lack of understanding from your students’ faces!

      Her advice to you seems both silly and horrifying. When I was a child, my mother read to me constantly. She’d never gone beyond high school, but she loved to read, and she didn’t worry a lick about age-appropriate materials. She’d just open a book and start. I think now I probably absorbed the flow of words like a sponge. If either of us didn’t know a word, we’d look it up, and keep on going.

      She was tolerant of my choices as well. I remember pulling down a copy of Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” from our shelves. I was reading by myself at that point, but there were plenty of words I didn’t know in that one, and Mom patiently explained them. Your peer reviewer probably would have suggested she set the Steinbeck aside and give me “The Pokey Little Puppy”. That was a good story, too – but I’m glad I was encouraged to extend myself.

      Thinking about “Cannery Row” always evokes my parents’ copy of the book. It was covered in a rough yellow cloth. Just today I discovered the original cover was buff, but there wasn’t enough cloth to finish the run, so they substituted bright yellow. There’s always something to learn.


  6. Thank you for this blog post, because this is exactly what I’m trying to do—expanding my universe of words. Herman Melville is full of words difficult to understand. One of them is the word “tar” referring to a “sailor”. I always thought it was a dark heavy viscid substance obtained as a residue.

    I’m in a constant state of pain when I read good literature, because it’s like reading encrypted books. With a dictionary I slowly unveil the codes and start to see the light behind the darkness of the codes.

    Another strange word that I found was “ado” which I later found out meant trouble or difficulty. During the last days of my life, I’m finally liberating the English language.

    Thank you for aiding me in my linguistic quest.


    1. Omar,

      But you’re exactly right, about tar as that black, sticky substance. In fact, that’s how sailors came to be called “Jack Tars” or “tars”. The substance known as tar had multiple uses aboard ship – conditioning ropes used in the rigging, waterproofing clothing and sometimes even helping to keep hair under control! Here’s a nice link that has lots of information.

      One of the phrases common in my family was, “Don’t make much ado about nothing”. It’s another reference to Shakespeare, but almost an idiom. I think for Grandma, it meant, “Don’t make such a fuss!”

      I’ll tell you a secret, though. When any of us English-speakers tackle a book like “Moby Dick”, the dictionary’s close at hand. That world is so different from our own, even though Melville’s language is our own. I suspect it won’t be long before you’ll begin entering that world, and experience a little pleasure to go along with the pain!


      1. No longer having a television to distract me I’m reading a LOT more than ever and I almost always had a book going even when I did have a cyclopian mind destroyer. I know a lot of people rebel against owning a Kindle or a Nook. That whole blah, blah, blah about nothing’s better than a book printed on dead trees. The smell, the tactile sensations of flipping through pages. But what happens if you move, like I did, to a country where the language isn’t your native tongue and finding books you can read is nearly impossible?

        You buy a Kindle or some other e-reader that allows you access to books you can understand. And one of the really NEAT things I found out about the Kindle is you don’t need to keep a dictionary at hand. Built right into the thing is The New Oxford American Dictionary. Stumped? Move the cursor to the word and “voila” as
        they say in France, there’s your definition.

        1. Richard,

          You just pointed out another great advantage of the Kindle and etc. – having books available in your own language. I can understand that – not to mention the advantages for the traveler, people who want to enlarge fonts, and so on. It’s just not something I need to spend money on now, especially since I don’t feel the appeal.

          On the other hand, I just entered a drawing for a Nook at my local library this week, so who knows? Maybe I’ll win and have one of the things anyway! Wouldn’t that be an irony….

          I’ve not heard anyone mention the built-in dictionary before. That’s a great feature, for sure. Much easier than having to put down an old-fashioned book and open up another!


  7. I love the pictures and they go with the writing hand-in-hand. Well written and expressed, Linda. I enjoy reading old texts and literature as I savor how the language was shaped and invoked.

    I totally agree with what you stated in your last paragraph and especially ” Perhaps the time has come to reclaim that heritage: to read, write and speak freely, to revel in the richness of language and rebel against those who would diminish and distort its power in our lives.”

    I am so very tired of trite such as on Twitter. I happen to like dictionaries and word origins books keeping an assortment nearby my desk for perusal.

    By the way, I like the previous reply by Omar and “linguistic quest.”

    Thank you, Linda, for a liberating language post. :)

    1. Anna,

      Omar’s a determined man – he lives in Panama and has taught himself English. He writes his blog about Panamanian life in English, and does a beautiful job of combining his words and images.

      I think you have company, when it comes to Twitter-exhaustion and other such social media maladies. My bold prediction: one day, boredom is going to set in. The corporations are going to figure out they can’t monetize their presence on all these sites, and Facebook and Twitter will fade away like MySpace.

      It’s the linear nature of social media that gets to me. With hundreds of thousands of postings, moving so quickly, many never are seen. There’s only one direction to go, and that’s forward. “Deep” doesn’t count.

      But language has layers, like one of your paintings. I used to carry a thesaurus around with me, and would just sit and read entries when I got caught in a line or a doctor’s office. Amazing how many fine words we can find that way – or wtih that assortment of books on your desk!


  8. One approach to learning a language—especially but not only a foreign language—might be called utilitarian or communicative: advocates of that approach claim that the main thing is to make yourself understood, and that the niceties of grammar, punctuation, and spelling aren’t so important.

    Now, most of the people who advocate that approach to language are sports fans, for the simple reason that most people of all persuasions are sports fans. I’ve often thought about the inherent contradiction, almost certainly unrecognized, in the minds of people who take the utilitarian approach. In watching sports they enjoy a player’s prowess and elegance of movement; they thrill to a dazzling performance. But what would these people say of a basketball player who tripped several times, fumbled the ball, recovered it but then dribbled in the wrong direction for a while, stumbled around, and almost accidentally got the ball in the basket after wasting a lot of time? The player accomplished what he set out to, but would fans want to see that sort of slipshod performance repeated?

    There’s more to language than making yourself minimally understood.

    1. Steve,

      Would fans want to see that kind of slipshod performance repeated? If fans of the Houston Rockets basketball team are any indication, the answer’s most assuredly “no”. They had the opportunity this year to see several of those performances, and they weren’t pleased.

      Your analogy’s so good – it certainly could be useful in a number of contexts, particularly high school classrooms.

      Your last line brings to mind my French teacher in college, who began the class by telling us, “There’s more to language than being able to buy cheese and wine.” When I finally made it to France, the cheese and wine was marvelous, but being able to talk with people while we shared those things was even better.


    1. Rick,

      Melpomene stopped me! I’m not up on my Muses – I know Urania, Calliope, and Thalia, but always have to head for a reference book to find the names of the others. Thanks for bringing that by – humorous as can be.


    1. Steve,

      I’m certainly happy to have read the article. There are three personal connections for me there.

      “The Children’s Hour” was one of the earliest poems I learned. I liked it so much I would nag my folks to read it aloud with me, and soon enough I had it memorized.

      “Alegria” reminds me of Cirque du Soleil, of course. I enjoyed listening to the song again, with a somewhat different video.

      Finally, there used to be a sailboat named Alegria that would show up at the yacht basin in Galveston. The retired couple on board were a physician and his wife. Every year they cruised down to Central America and spent a few months providing medical care – a joyous activity, indeed.

      Thanks for the great addition!


  9. Ah, where are the days when it was Shakespeare who brought hundreds of new words into the English language, without turning a single attractive noun (think of poor old impact) into a sorry excuse for a verb? My favorite mug, which sits by my side as I write, in fact, is covered in Shakespearean insults. “a fusty nut with no kernel,” veriest varlet that ever chewed with a tooth,” “bolting-hutch of beastliness,” to name but a few. By comparison, the situation nowadays is egregious . . .

    1. Susan,

      What? You don’t like the verbing of nouns? You must be headquartered in a very strange place, or guesting there for a while. Perhaps with a little efforting we can move beyond our frustrations and start authoring some new and creative pieces.

      I do love your mug. We’ve lost the art of insult, along with everything else. “Your mama wears combat boots” doesn’t cut it any more, but what passes insult today is mostly offensive and crude. On the other hand, I did peek into an online list of Shakespearean insults and I must say – there was a little picking and choosing going on when they introduced us to the Bard!


  10. I just love this: “mostly just lie about, bored to tears in cheap novels or suffocating under the weight of unreadable dissertations.”

    It is time to liberate language. People seem to have gotten so lazy about utilizing the right word to fit the situation. Partly because schools have gone to easier ( less challenging vocabulary) to read textbooks and literature. And many schools don’t teach vocabulary anymore – just words found in their watered down literature. The news media is resorting to holding up items and using popular vocabulary at a low level.

    Words seem to have lost their “fun”. But they are fascinating – maybe exact, elegant speech will be a popular fad someday.

    1. phil,

      It may not be the primary reason, but it’s a fact that the idiocy of political correctness is making many people less spontaneous and far more cautious in their speech. I can’t tell you the number of times each week I hear a phrase like, “Oh – wait. I can’t say that….”
      I heard a fellow chastised beyond belief this spring for referring to “secretary’s week” rather than “administrative assistant’s week”. Pure silliness.

      There are terms that are derogatory, for sure. I’d no more use certain ethnic slurs than – well, I just wouldn’t. But I’d be happy to hear more references to Indians, secretaries and midgets and fewer to bitches, a-holes and hos. (A confession: I wasn’t sure quite how to spell that last one – do you use apostrophes? and if so, where? But I did run into a hilarious entry in the Urban Dictionary, a spelling lesson for the street: “Dude – there’s no “e” on the end. If you put an “e”, you’re talkin’ about a garden tool.)

      I still think about the advice I was offered in my first year of blogging – never to write above an 8th grade level. As one blog-guru put it, “You don’t want to make your readers feel inadequate.” So. I should limit myself for the sake of those who prefer not to strive? There’s a lot of that floating around these days. ;)


      1. People are way too sensitive and need to get back to the sticks and stones philosophy – that would disarm so many of the attacks – get real and grow up. Get a sense of humor.
        Oh, it used to be media aimed at 8th level on TV and news – by the 80’s it had dropped to 5th grade level…and people wonder why there are issues now. hasta later

      1. Saw that – Yeah Texas did that a couple of years ago, too. (have to get those % rates to qualify for federal funding!) Actions like these are the stake in the heart of NCLB which actually did some good until data collection and testing mania took over.

  11. Your post recalls to mind: My dad watching baseball on TV on Saturday afternoons in the 1950s with Dizzy Dean as the “color” man (versus the announcer who provided statistics); people who don’t read Austin or Bronte or Dickens because they use too many big words, a colleague having me listen to the passage of medical dictation she was transcribing because she couldn’t make out a word the dictator was saying, and then asking me, “is that a medical word or an English word?”; “fine tuning” prose, and the rush of finding the word that says exactly what you mean; the dictionary lookup feature on my Kindle (yes, I actually look up words I encounter and don’t know) and how seldom I need to use it, the depressing idea of how many people I encounter in the media who apparently only know one adjective, the one that begins with “F:” a dear friend who habitually express his extreme displeasure in a way that delights and amuses, without ever using a word unfit for a three-year-old to hear.

    Also, thank you for the Memidex website. I’ve got it bookmarked.

    1. WOL,

      As someone who once did medical transcription as a normal part of my job, I’m both laughing and sympathizing with your colleague. Today, I suspect there are other ways of asking that question. For example, “Is that a tech word or an English word?” Or, “Is that text-talk, or English?”

      As for that special little word you mention – the one beginning with “f” – I still remember the first time I heard it spoken aloud. It was either 1992 or 1993, and it was on a sailboat in Galveston Bay. I was so shocked my first impulse was to jump overboard and swim for shore. Now, that sort of language seems to be the water we swim in. I will say this – once the shock value wears off, you begin to notice how otherwise boring the conversation is.

      I keep waiting for the tide to turn.


  12. My favorite word to throw around is “obstreperous.” And I’m enamored of ‘prestidigitation.” I often use a fifty cent word when a one cent one would do. I figure it’s my gift to the community. Interesting to note, though, that I don’t use the big words in my writing very often. I wonder why that is?

    1. Bug,

      Those are great words! “Prestidigitation” reminds me of one of my favorites – “tintinnabulation”.

      My own suspicion would be that those big words stay out of your writing for one of two reasons: spelling, or sound. There are some words I’ll start to write, and there’s no help for it – I have to stop and go to the dictionary. “Chrysanthemum” is one. Of course it’s not hard – but even now I’m looking at it thinking, “Is that right?”

      And some words just are fun to say. Three of them are up above. When you combine them with a few more words that are fun to say, you often can have a rhyme show up, and the next thing you know, you’ve memorized “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and are headed off to the next one!


  13. Your description of skry coming to you and demanding to be used is just what happens to me on occasion (and I have to look it up to make sure it really is a word and means what I think it means).

    Just last week, I was talking with some office people who thought simply not swearing at meetings was a sign of religious upbringing. I said it was a sign that person may have a broader vocabulary than the overused expletives.

    I also admire those who can express ideas in a fresh way without using big or less common words.

    1. nikkipolani,

      Isn’t that a wonderful experience – to have a word appear unbidden, or to be hunting for one, and have it suddenly appear? Jonah Lehrer published a New Yorker called “The Eureka Effect” that touches on just these issues. His slightly counter-intuitive point, supported by science, is that sometimes we focus too hard on finding a word or solving a problem. When we relax, as in sleep, the brain is left free to do its own sorting, and often will come up with just what we’re looking for.

      I think another reason for an increase in cursing (or whatever it is) may be its growing pervasiveness in the culture at large. The same acronym that was popular among computer sorts at one time – GIGO, or garbage in, garbage out – still holds true, and applies in many situations.

      Annie Dillard gets it right, when she says, in her “Writing Life” that the author “is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.”


      1. Before I forget, your substitution of peaches for the mangoes is perfect.

        Interesting about the “Eureka Effect” — I remembering Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance describing the effect as laterally drifting. If we stop pushing ourselves to focus, the information sought will drift towards us.

  14. What fun. I enjoy the thought of words escaping and “running the country unsupervised.” You’re so right about meeting a word for the first time and then seeing it again and again. I wonder if it’s really the first time I’ve seen it, or if it’s the first time I’ve noticed it.

    Bug’s affection for prestidigitation reminds me of Johnny Carson. He used it often. He also enjoyed legerdemain.

    1. Bella,

      You know, I miss Johnny Carson. Remember the famous axe-throwing incident? I actually was watching that night – I still laugh when I remember it, and I laugh even more when I see it again.
      It isn’t just the toss, it’s Carson’s spontaneous line at the end. He had such great timing.

      With new words, I think it’s often the noticing. It’s as though our radar gets recalibrated. It seems to work with other things, too. I learn about a new flower, and suddenly it’s blooming everywhere. I discover a new neighbor’s moved in, and the next thing I know, I’m running into her at the grocery, the gas station, and so on.

      It’s probably a good thing we don’t notice everything. We’d never get any rest. ;-)


  15. It’s sad to watch words disappear like leaves down the stream. Grunters and syllabaphobics seem to be taking over. Like my new word?

    1. Martha,

      I do! Could you design a line of cards for them? (Actually, that could be a fairly amusing project.)

      All of this discussion certainly puts story-telling, and more specifically family story-telling, into a new context. You don’t need many words to communicate the information found in the various records. But to tell the story with depth, compassion and humor? A few two and three-syllable words probably would be of use.


  16. i have no idea about other countries, but i’ve watched the american vocabulary shrink drastically from the time our two oldest graduated high school in the early 90’s. i suppose having matthew in school has brought it to the forefront of my mind. at the same time i see his vocabulary smaller than i’d like, but larger than his peers, i’ve seen john, our oldest son expand his vocabulary to the point where i have to look up some of his words:-).

    he’s a high school history teacher and refuses to dumb down for his students who laugh aloud on a regular basis at his words and their proper pronunciation. i dumbed down in public conversation years ago so i couldn’t be spotted as a damnyankee in the deep south. it made life easier and i’d do it again. in the past 5 years i’ve been secretly:-) enjoying following words online at webster. it’s a wonderful pass time and you can stumble upon some of the most intriguing words. (good to know i’m not the only one who thinks about it)

    1. sherri,

      I smiled at your reference to dumbing-down in order to fit in. I’ve often said I’d love to write a book about my varnishing career called, “I Passed for Blue-Collar”. It’s not that I think blue collar folks are inferior, any more than you think all southerners are stupid. But language can allow us to live in multiple worlds and, as you say, it can make life easier. That said, hooray for your son. It’s people like him who are helping to preserve much more than order in the classroom.

      Another program you might enjoy is the Oxford English “Adopt a Word” program.. The nice thing about adopting a word is that they don’t have to be spayed or vaccinated, they don’t eat much, and they only rarely run away from home!

      And no – you’re not the only one who thinks about these things. I suspect there are more of us than any of us imagine.


  17. You started this post by saying you’re a terrible sports fan, and I proceeded to give you an analogy based on sports. The truth is, I’m no sports fan either, but let me be a sport and parlay the subject into another comment. You mentioned the word scry, which was shortened from descry. It so happens that sport is another such word: it came about as a shortening of the disport that meant (and still means) ‘to amuse oneself’.

    1. Steve,

      And wouldn’t you know – some nice young man with a penchant for amusing himself has a sports blog called – He’s even got the dictionary definition up top, with his categories arrayed beneath: beisbol, boosters, gamblers, hoops, hotties and rants. Something for everyone.

      Funny – some people approach blogging like a competition, focusing on winners, losers and stats. For others, it’s an enjoyable way of amusing themselves.

      The next time someone calls and asks, “What’re you up to?”, I’ll just tell them I’m disporting myself on the blogs!


  18. They don’t need freeing in our house, they are roaming at will, from morning to night. We are crossword solvers, readers, debaters, conversationalists. We love words, the more obtuse or erudite the better.

    We start off at breakfast sometimes and are still delving into the mysteries of language an hour later, having fetched dictionaries to help, which then lead to the etymology of words, which then lead to history, geography and spread further into drama, theatre, literature.

    I have worked as a translator; no other language can rival English for the mot juste (sorry!). I’d have three texts to prepare, English was always the shortest, French a kind of middling one and German a convoluted monster of clauses and sub clauses in every sentence.

    I adore language and what it can do and choose my conversation partners with great care. I can do gossip too, if absolutely needed.

    I wouldn’t have used ‘with alacrity’ in a sport context. Without looking it up I would feel that it pertains more to alacrity of mind and reaction than speed in running. But I could be wrong.

    1. friko,

      “Alacrity” is one of those words I’ve always used properly, but without knowing its formal definition. After the commentator hauled it out, I discovered it means “promptness in response, cheerful readiness”. It’s one of those nice words that works for both the mental and physical. Responding to a question with alacrity would be well-received, I’d think. On the other hand, grabbing that football and heading down the field promptly and with “cheerful readiness” is a pretty good thing, too.

      Embarassed as I am to say so, I’ve never explored or used the phrase “le mot juste”, although I’ve seen it and had a vague sense of its meaning. I certainly had no idea Flaubert was so dedicated to the pursuit of “the right word” – and there I am, putting the phrase right up there at the top of my blog. That’s truly funny – what some might have thought pretension was simple ignorance.
      On the other hand, I’m glad I used the tagline. It’s just the right phrase.

      I didn’t realize you’ve done translating.Your description of the German language makes me smile – I’ve never quite gotten the knack of it. When I traveled in Germany the first time, a friend told me, “The most important phrase in German is ‘Ein bier, bitte’. And when you’re traveling, just keep your eye on the clock. If your schedule says you’re supposed to arrive in Dornhan at 3:13 and the clock says 3:13, get off the train. You’re there.” He was right – I never had a bit of trouble.


  19. We’re going through a paradigm shift, big time. What was held as good and admirable has all but become subject of parody, ‘so yesterday’… or politically incorrect.

    Sure, the Internet has brought the democratizing of views, creating a more equal ground for the sharing of ideas. But, it’s also sad to see some traditions being discarded in the name of progress or efficiency, ‘good’ and ‘proper’ language usage being one of them. Yes, I’ve to put them in quotation marks because, hey, as they say nowadays, who has the authority to say what’s right and what’s not?

    Mind you, the Oxford English Dictionary is quickly keeping pace with changes in our vocabulary. They’re constantly adding new words (and discarding obsolete ones?) FYI, you might like to take a look at this. BTW, is FYI in the OED? Just wondering…

    1. Arti,

      The first thing I did was check out your link, and I was delighted to discover a mention of “slow blogging”. I remember when you first posted about that, and we began mulling over the virtues – not to mention our own inclinations in that direction. You were on the cutting edge! That had to be two years ago, or more – and now the practice has made the OED!

      You’re right about the paradigm shift, of course. And the relativism you mention started nibbling around the edges of various disciplines decades ago. “No right or wrong” has implications that reach far beyond grammar. Still, the results can be startling in the schools. Reports like this one from Reuters about Florida reading scores leave me apoplectic. I’d say that adults are failing the youth of our country, but that assumes adults are running the schools.

      In the end, our old friend Humpty Dumpty may be frighteningly relevant. I often think of his words these days:

      “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more or less.”
      “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
      “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”


  20. I haven’t seen or heard Al Michaels since my divorce (my husband got him in the equitable distribution), but good for him using the best word and not dumbing down. My thinking is to put the word out there. Any questions and comments will generate richer language in the future.

    1. Claudia,

      Am I smiling? Absolutely. Of all the marvelous tales I’ve heard about dividing up households, that’s one of the best.

      You’re right, of course. Whether we’ve gone to the trouble of learning language or just absorbed it on the fly, we might as well use it. If it makes us happy, that’s reason enough. If we influence someone else to move a little beyond, “Yo, dude!” and “whatever”, that would be good, too.


    1. roughseas,

      I didn’t know “apricate”! It’s a good word for me, since I varnish boats for a living and spend my days in the sun. I’m not sure that qualifies as “basking”, precisely, but on really easy work days it’s close enough.

      Thanks for stopping by – you’re always welcome! And thanks for adding your voice to the comment-box discussion on the forums. Much appreciated.


      1. You have an interesting blog. That’s why I commented.

        I think I will go back to learning a word a day, it’s a good way to increase one’s vocabulary, and I do like apricate. I’ve never heard it used. It would apply well here too. It’s the sort of word you would use for gecko taking the sun.

        Today’s word – is blatter…..

  21. Great post…I loved the image of words waiting to be freed from their captivity. Put that way, it seems like a writer’s responsibility is to be more willing to set them free.

    1. Martha,

      Leading by example’s a wonderful thing – no less for writers than anyone else. But of course we could stretch ourselves just a bit even in the course of daily conversation.

      I noticed Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt advised Boston grads today to turn their various devices off for an hour every day, and suggested they have real conversations with the people in their lives. It’s a start!


  22. Three cheers, my friend! You bring up a good point on the frequency of a word popping up once you really pay attention to it. But many don’t. Last night during our Scrabble game more than a few words came up that weren’t words (or at least, not legal Scrabble words!) but they had meaning to someone (well, maybe the meaning was to get unwarranted points!). Still, it’s another example of vocabulary — and our lack of it!

    Kevin always mocks his older brother when he comes up with what Kevin calls “high-falutin’ words to impress” — and I daresay, that’s part of Greg’s motivation. But another part is to use the words he has learned. He may be a space cadet sometimes, but I’ve told him more than once that I appreciate that he does that. We all should. (That said, “alacrity” doesn’t strike me as so foreign!)

    I have photos of my boy posted in a goodbye post. Please stop by if you haven’t. I’m behind on getting back to comments.

    1. jeanie,

      I was trying to remember if there were Scrabble dictionaries when I started playing the game – I don’t think there were. We used a regular dictionary to prove or disprove “fake” words – and there were plenty of those! Still, it’s a great game and certainly does stretch the memory – even when it strains credulity.

      I just had one of “those” experiences this week. A photographer whose work I look in on had used a Klimt-like treatment for one of her photos. The next thing I knew, I was bumping into publicity for Klimt’s 150th anniversary all over the place. Coincidence? Sensitizing? Who knows. But it’s a fun phenomenon.

      i’ve been behind myself – I’m just finishing up an online computer course that’s really eaten into my blog time. But, we’re past what I was most interested in, and I think I’m going to let the rest of it go by the wayside. I always can take it again – it’s a regular offering of Stanford that I discovered on the Open Culture site. Amazing how many free courses are available.

      I’m so glad to see you here – and glad to hear you’re doing things like playing Scrabble. I’ll be by soon!


  23. Linda,

    I have always considered myself a bit of a wordmonger. However today’s read has me heading for my early 1900s edition of Websters with the 6 inch deep spine… ;)

    It started in high school when I used the word repertoire with some friends in a discussion of popular music we owned on vinyl. They made fun of me and ridiculed me for using the word. I asked if I had used it incorrectly, and they admitted that I hadn’t, but that in using it I was acting too hoity-toity for our age group. From then on I was hooked… Later in university I had an English professor put me down for using “indeed” in one of my writings. He said, “No one uses that word any more. It’s antiquated!” (I really hated him for it.)

    Often when writing I find the odd word will come to mind, but for the very reason that it is obscure in today’s language, I find myself second guessing, then running for the dictionary to look it up.

    I don’t mind. The smile of satisfaction is exhilarating.
    ~ Lynda

    1. Lynda,

      It’s an interesting subset of people, who have memories attached to the use of words! “Hoity-toity” is a good one – as good as persnickety and lollygag. I love old-fashioned words, “folk” words if you will – the sort that would have caused your academician to turn up his nose.

      I keep trying to make the point that “big” or “little, “modern” or “old” isn’t the point. The point is finding the best word for our purpose, and the more words we have at our disposal, the better our chances of finding the right one.

      It’s amazing to me how many people have mentioned having words “come to them”. Don’t you wonder what words are lurking about in our subconscious – or unconscious – just waiting for a chance to come out and bushwhack us?


      1. Yes! However I can’t see it as a bushwhack, seems to me to be more like a brain hug! ;)
        ~ L

        Favorite antiquated word? Scufuffle or var. Kerfuffle. Which was first encountered in Anne of Green Gables.

  24. I love your image of neglected words escaping the dictionary and roaming the countryside. But the shrinking pool of usable words seems to reflect a downward spiral: as we use fewer words, more of them become unfamiliar to others. Word lovers congregate on your blog, Linda, and with good reason. But the group itself, like the language, will likely continue to shrink. (If I’m wrong about that, however, I won’t be disappointed.)

    Note to pixilated2: The word kerfuffle is alive and well in Prince Edward Island.

    1. bronxboy,

      Why a downward spiral? Maybe just the opposite is true – the more creative and appealing words people hear, the more they’ll be willing to use them. Before everyone became so enamoured of dumbing-down, there used to be a naive little concept called raising the bar. I’ll bet it would still work!

      After all, there are disparate reasons for increasing vocabulary. Some of them won’t provoke ridicule or lead to being upbraided!
      (I just couldn’t help myself!)


  25. Linda, You can glean much from reading all the replies. Ha-ha! Glad to know that I am not the only one, and hope you don’t mind your readers having side conversations here in your comments section. Is it considered a faux pas to engage in such rhetoric at the expense of another’s personal space? ~ Lynda

    PS: What is your take on this? (Personally I think the page is very misleading in its opening statement about the word.)

    1. Lynda,

      I certainly don’t mind a little back and forth among folks. I’ve always said I hope my posts engender conversation, but I’ve never meant people should talk only to me! That would be like inviting people to dinner and then telling them they can only speak to the hostess. I’d be gone before dessert! (Well, maybe right after dessert….)

      I do know you’re not the only one who comes back to read the comments. Some people comment, others don’t. But I think it’s great that folks like the conversation. I don’t have a clue if the Blog Mavens would consider cross-talk a faux pas, but then we don’t really care what they think, do we?

      As for that web page – the first word that came to mind is “malarky”. The phrase isn’t internet slang at all, nor are many of the other words listed. It looks to me as though someone’s thrown together a site just to sell advertising.


  26. It’s amazing, when you really think about it, that it’s possible get by on a day to day basis, using an extremely reduced vocabulary. It’s equally amazing to rediscover the richness of language on reading the words of a great writer. Thanks, then, Linda for all the pleasures received from every single one of your posts.

    1. Andrew,

      On the other hand, so much of our day is routine, and requires very little in terms of vocabulary. “What would you like for dinner?” and “Didn’t I ask you to clean up your room?” often do the trick.
      Even when we press into a larger context, we often get stuck with phrases like, “Did you hear what the *^%* idiot said on tv?” or, “I swear I’m going to start making the trip across town for groceries.”
      There’s room there for some creative adjectives, but not much more.

      So – what to do? Dinnertime conversation’s a good place to start, or an evening just spent talking and asking other kinds of questions: what did you read? Where did you go? What do you think about (fill in the blank)?” Just learning the words isn’t enough. Being able to use them comfortably is important, too, and by definition that’s a group activity, even if the group is only two.

      Sometimes we treat the best words like good china – to be set up on the shelf and admired until we drag it down for a special occasion. Maybe we should think of every conversation as a special occasion!


  27. What an interesting post and a much needed one ! Thank you. Your posts are a real gift to me for all the new expressions and words I have learned while reading you. Precise English words that I had never heard of.

    I find that too often English (for foreigners) is taught in a too basic way. Then we think we know your language because we can be understood. What a great error ! English is a language with so many nuances for a single word, much more precise than the equivalent in French.

    I also find that we use too few words in our daily language. Lazyness to look for the right expression or just ignorance ? The best French language I have ever heard was in French-speaking Africa. A great variety of words, accurate and literary expressions that are a pleasure to listen to. Why don’t we use them too ? I understand how you feel. Some words are getting lost. Do you still use “haberdashery” ? I simply love the sound of it.

    1. Isa,

      I’m intrigued by your comment about the beauty of the language in francophone Africa. The traders from Mali who passed through Liberia knew “business English”, but often would talk among themselves in French. I always enjoyed the sound of it. I would guess they weren’t making many literary allusions, but it sounded very different than what I heard in France. Of course, what I heard in Paris was quite different from what I heard in the French countryside. Perhaps those outside Paris were more willing to slow down a bit for a befuddled traveler.

      “Haberdashery” is making a comeback! There are several boutiques and men’s furnishings stores I know of that use the word in their name. One of my favorites is in the Texas Hill Country – in Fredericksburg. I don’t really have any use for their wares, but I always enjoy peeking into their store. When you go to the site, be sure and click the link at the top of the page, which allows you a virtual tour and a 360 degree view of the interior of the – haberdashery!


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