Words: A Prolegomenal Disquisition

English — you have to love it!  The title comes by way of WordGenius, a daily feed of words you never knew existed — and may never have a chance to use.

My high school English teacher used to encourage us to use “thousand dollar words” in order to expand our vocabulary. I still love to collect such words — they are fun!. Considering inflation, thousand dollar words in the 60’s are probably ‘hundred thousand dollar words’ today. Are they worth knowing — or using? Like rare stamps, some words are treasures, but not meant for the daily mail.

In fact, words can be temporal: usage waxing and waning — or in fact changing. For example, within 100 years the term ‘tory’ morphed from describing an Irish ‘bandit’ to describing a conservative member of parliament!  The popular use of slang, like carbon dating, can place a word squarely in a timeframe. Today’s lol was yesterday’s belly laugh. BTW, isn’t it time for lol to FITS (fade into the sunset)?

It’s no coincidence that groups of words are called passages — a conveyance for understanding. However, choice of words can create distance and draw more attention to the author than to the subject. A learned pastor — and excellent speaker — I know used to rail on about people who ‘bloviate’ and inserted the word frequently in sermons.  Whether you find this ironic or irenic will say a lot about your communication philosophy!

Yet at times, arcane words do fit the need. ‘Mellifluous’ sounds like what it is — and it’s easy off the tongue. Unfortunately ‘ratiocinate’ sounds like the starter is failing in your car. So, I must confess a bias: a preference for words with lots of vowels vs. the chitinous sound of consonants clicking together.

Words can speed progress or slow you down to a crawl — try again to read the fine print and boilerplate in legal documents. After reading hundreds of scholarly articles in professional life, I grew a bit tired of third person passive, densely packed language. It’s not that written discourse needs to be pointed to the lowest common denominator, it’s just that reading — and then rereading — passages seems inefficient. Lately, if I invest time in reading (or listening), I’d like to get to the point, particularly if the information appears useful. So, accessibility is key.

Accessibility is important, but so is precision. No one benefits by vague descriptions that declare people or efforts are “fantastic”, “beautiful”, or “nice” (or nasty). Some politicians prefer that type of 50,000 ft. explanation, but other than providing a blue or pink litmus test, what do you really learn? Descriptions long to be clothed elegantly!  Why are results ‘fantastic’, the person ‘nice’, the program “beautiful”?

If I were to give my grandchildren advice, it would be: choose your words to suit the subject, the audience, and the medium. Mutual understanding is the aim. Realize that words have their moment. Don’t be afraid to show off a special word, if it is a precise modifier — but a little goes a long way. Conversely, verbal shortcuts or initialisms may be a long-term trend, but consider the depth of information conveyed. Verbal shortcuts are your acquaintances, but your real friends are words that make your thoughts come alive.

Parting Words. Food for thought: what is the word you would most like to hear initially — and the last word you would like to hear? (Mine — for both — might be “welcome”). What’s yours?

The Spanish Disquisition

I must admit I had to reread Wally’s piece a second time with my dictionary just to figure out the title.  True confession…my title has nothing to do with what I am writing.  Just a play on words.  Words have always been a favorite of mine.  I’m generally good with words, hmm…. does that mean I know a lot of them or perhaps I’m just kind to them when they are struggling?  Interesting conundrum!  Well at least to me it is.  To you it may be neither interesting nor a conundrum, if you catch my drift.  Drift being used in the slang sense,  not being pushed around by the wind. OMG I am very confused.  I have to clear my head- what the heck does that mean?  If I clear my head what happens to my nose and eyes?  Where do these expressions come from?

Words develop over time as Wally said.  Can you imagine George Washington telling Martha that Mt Vernon needs WiFi or tech support for their computers? So new words have to be invented as society progresses.  “Martha, you are interfering with my digital networking!  I’ll burn the garbage later!” 
Each day in my classroom for many years I would write a new word on the blackboard with its definition  before the kids arrived.   The kids knew they would get extra points if they used that word in their speech or writing that day.  “The Word of the Day” became popular and sometimes kids would bring in words for me to use.  

My brother and I growing up in Flushing  invented words for specific situations.  Goodhumerical, an adjective used to describe a hot summer day when a nice ice cream bar from the Good Humor truck was in order started our private word development.  He and I developed quite a few adjectives to describe many of our relatives.  “Nissengnat” was how we would refer to our uncle from the Bronx because he would always finish his sentences with the expression, “ and this and that….” but with his heavy Bronx accent it came out as, “And nis an nat.”  My brother used to tell me I was being cataclusional, when I would come to a cataclysmic conclusion as I usually did about most things.
So I too always thought of words as being fun.  And the combination of words into phrases even more enjoyable.  I’m feeling very scatter brained as I write this rejoinder today.  Does that mean parts of my brain have been scattered around my house? Maybe, like Maria, who the nuns couldn’t even deal with, I’m just a flibbertigibbet!  I have no idea where that word came from derivatively speaking!   Not sure how you speak derivatively but it just rolls off your tongue, actually made me giggle inside.  Sometimes I giggle outside but it was too cold this morning! 

Oh, I almost forgot.  Probably the first word I heard in my family was, “d’yu eat?” And that probably will be the last thing I hear as well!

On Words

I was immediately taken with the word knowledge and wit of my blogging partners.  They keep me on my toes and always in learning mode as I read their posts and listen to their stories.  This is yet another reason why I appreciate them and what they bring to my moments of thought and reflection.

For a period of time, words served me well.  Fortunate to have intelligent colleagues and family, critical friends, and a love of my work, I readily found the words I needed at the right time and delivered in the right tone.  Clearly I’m not, nor ever was a grammar maven.  I was adequate, at best.  Yet, as well as I can recollect, I was usually able to find just the right word or phrase to help express what I meant or to affirm what I heard.  It was critical to my sense of value and good work.  However, that capacity is now diminished and continues to decline as the years advance.  I feel the loss of words I can’t retrieve, shorter moments of clear focus, memory confusion, the list goes on.  I appreciate what I can do but am inexorably aware of what I do, less well.

Early in my career a student came to me at lunchtime and asked if I could help her.  She wanted to know why she didn’t have any friends and wanted to know what she could do about it.  She was bright, as cute as any of the girls in her class, and mostly upbeat.  And, she loved to talk.  She spoke of her vacations, her adventures after school, and about the books she read.  Together, we came to the understanding that perhaps one of the most important things people want is to be heard.  She agreed to practice spending less time talking about herself and more time listening, really listening, to the words of others in the hopes of making friends.  Later on, we formed a small group of students with similar needs and focused on using “words of connection” to help them address their needs.

I often think about what word to use to capture, with absolute precision, my feelings at a particular moment.  And while I know the feeling, I cannot find the words to do it justice.  You know, the feeling that is a bit more than one descriptor but a bit less of another.  Sometimes we find words in other languages that aren’t directly translatable and that seem to better convey what we mean.  They can be described in English but the native speaker will tell you there is no way to explain it accurately.  The Yiddish word Kvell, is defined as a state of being extremely proud.  Yet to me it’s more than that.  It is a feeling that comes from within that goes beyond pride.  It is like an act, a feeling, and a thought, intensely combined. 

Wal challenges us to identify a first and/or last word we find meaningful.  I choose delicious!  I often use that word beyond the context of how food tastes.  It’s how I sometimes feel about a morning walk, a loving friend, or a perfect moment.  Delicious!  I would also use Thank You!  Some days, I find myself so appreciative of what I have, where I am, and what I’m doing that I shout out, “Thank You!”  Most often only Duke hears it as it’s usually when I’m with him in nature but sometimes I do so with a trusted friend.  It’s an expression of gratitude to whomever or whatever in the universe might be listening.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s