Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, March 4, 2012

And Speaking of Words ...

I used to like to read William F. Buckley, Jr.--not for his politics (he was somewhat to the right of me) but for his language.  Just about every time I read one of his books (and I read most of them)--and even some of his essays--I found myself scrambling for the dictionary--all back in the days when a dictionary was a book.  I still remember learning from him the words anfractuous and maiuetic (look 'em up: you don't need a book!)

For many years I've been a looker-upper of new words.  But not always.  As a junior high and high school student (okay, probably in college, too ... definitely in college) I had a simple two-part strategy for dealing with unfamiliar words: (1) check the context and guess; (2) skip them.  (Hey, I got my degree, didn't I?)  But I had one professor--Prof. Ravitz (now a FB friend!)--from whom I learned some cool words--apotheosis and (a favorite) lycanthropy, a word that has become very useful since the advent of the Underworld movies.

But once I became a "Professional Educator" (one responsible for, you know, English), I gradually became more responsible (if that's the right word) and was soon looking up every word I came across, writing it down, trying to employ it when I saw the need.  Like in grad school papers.  I remember using the word spatchcock in a paper; the prof circled it and wrote something like "Don't ever use this word again."

And later, reading biographies of Jack London, I learned that he became obsessed with words as a young man, writing them on little slips of paper, carrying them around in his pockets, affixing them to his mirror.  Learning.  Making up for lost time (he'd had a rather, uh, nomadic youth, some of which--during one of his nomadic periods--he spent in the Erie County [PA] Penitentiary).

I was sort of doing that, too--though I did not use mirrors.  I don't like mirrors, especially now.  Instead, I wrote them in little notebooks, tried to memorize and use the ones I really liked.  One of my favorites: callipygian, a word with many uses.  (A related word: steatopygic.)  Neither is particularly PC, but still ...

As one who memorized words but did not necessarily memorize their pronunciations, I sometimes goofed.  People corrected me.  My mother would promptly use the word--correctly pronounced--in another sentence, employing a slight emphasis on it, the emphasis containing the message: "You are my ignorant son."  My older brother would stop me and pronounce, as if to say, "I can't stand another second of of this boorish jangle!"  And I had a good friend--a former WRA English teacher, Mac--who would say, after I'd finished my sentence, "I believe the word is pronounced ...."  Mac and I would often meet for coffee at the old Saywell's Drug Store in Hudson, and the owners were kind enough to keep behind the counter an unabridged Webster's so we could settle these mild logomachies.

And finally--sometimes I was positive that a word meant something that it didn't.  For years, I thought sojourn was a fancy word for journey.  (When I learned it isn't, I promptly put it on all of my vocabulary lists for my students--and acted as if to say, "Every dolt on earth knows this ... why don't you?")

I now subscribe to three different word-a-day calendars online.  And have a couple of different word-a-day print calendars around.  And several times a week there's some damn word I swear I've never seen before.  From one of those calendars I learned a new favorite word: borborygmus.

Which reminds me: I'm hungry ...

PS:  Link to my new biography of Mary Shelley on Kindle ...


1 comment:

  1. Great post! I think you've inspired me to actively work on enhancing my vocabulary. :)