Dawn Reader

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

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Do We Need All These Weird Words?

Every now and then I'll post on FB some odd and/or interesting word that's showed up in my inbox because of the various word-a-day sites I patronize.  Today, for example, from Wordsmith, came this one:


(noo-dee-uhs-TUR-shuhn, nyoo-) 

adjective: Of or relating to the day before yesterday.

From Latin nudius tertius, literally, today is the third day. Earliest documented use: 1647. Also see hesternal(relating to yesterday) hodiernal (relating to today).

"I'd ordered the key on-line for £48 that nudiustertian morning and was not expecting it to arrive until the following week."
Benjamin Nolan; Cyclin' the City; Syniq.co.uk; Aug 22, 2012

This was not a word I'd ever seen before--or if I had, it had passed through my eyes and right out my ears without venturing into my brain.  I don't know that I'll ever use it--except to be smart-assy somewhere.

Anyway, a good FB friend--one who's normally very tolerant of my FB friskiness--commented this way:

I am going to suggest a blasphemous thought here -- Do you ever wonder if we really NEED all these arcane words? Surely they get rather lonely on the back shelf of everyday usage.

That's a question I expect lots of us have asked--I know my students certainly thought it (and occasionally vocalized it) over the years while they were studying for our weekly vocabulary tests.  Every year I would get the question: Why do we have to learn words we'll never use?  And my fussy reply was invariably: Well, you certainly can't ever use them if you don't know them!--a reply that earned me few (any?) converts.

I've posted about vocabulary here at some length before, so I'll try to keep this focused.  Years ago, I remember someone's chiding William F. Buckley, Jr. (whose vocabulary was enormous, Shakespearean) for his use of arcane and sesquipedalian (!!) words, and his reply was something like this: Everyone knows words that other people don't know.  The words I use are not odd words to me because I use them all the time.  I'm certain he said it much more eloquently than this, but you get the idea.

I learned a lot of words from Buckley (though I found his politics unappealing)--among them the word anfractuous, which I promptly used in an essay I submitted to his magazine, National Review.  And in 1979 when that piece ran (a highlight of my publishing life), there was anfractuous, glistening in its over-wrought sentence.  I've used it a few times since--but not often.  It's mostly in my "reading vocabulary"--a word I don't have to look up (or skip) when I come to it.

Another odd word I learned somewhere (Buckley? Or maybe Gore Vidal, who also ate dictionaries?) was callipygian (having well-shaped buttocks).  I promptly looked for ways to use it and found an opportunity in a Plain Dealer book review in 2002.  I was sure my editor would zap it, but she didn't, and not long afterwards I got a nice comment from Prof. Robert Sawyer, who taught Classics at Hiram College.  He loved that word, its Greek roots and all (it had originally referred to the rear of Aphrodite).  BTW: I learned another, related word at the same time: steatopygous (having a big fat butt).  I've not as yet found a PC way to employ this word--but I haven't forgotten about it, either.  One day, I will drop it somewhere ... see if it bounces.

For years (youth, adolescence), I had a simple strategy when I came across odd words (viz., any word I didn't know--meaning plenty): I skipped it.  Tried to figure it out from context.  But if I couldn't, I just figured it couldn't have been all that important a point anyhow--I mean, if the writer wanted to make a good point, he'd use normal words!  And read dumbly on.

(This was actually a plot point in the film we saw last night--Guilt Trip.  Seth Rogan plays a scientist who's invented a product he wants to market, but his sales pitches are too "wordy"--too, well, scientific.  Not until he (reluctantly) takes advice from his mother--Barbara Streisand--to dumb it down a little does he manage to make a single sale.)

But when I put away childish things (like skipping unknown words), I started looking up--and writing down--words I didn't know, and there were/are MANY.  The Oxford English Dictionary, now in its second edition (a third is in preparation), is twenty thick volumes.  Sure, word histories consume lots of those pages, but still it defines some 600,000 words, a few more than I know ... than anyone knows.

Using weird words does not make you universally admired--in fact, in the current anti-intellectual climate in American politics, politicians have to avoid even mildly unfamiliar words: can't allow others to see you as elitist, you know!  As someone with an education!  Perhaps I told this story here before--but too bad; here it is again: In a grad school paper I once used the word spatchcock, which I'd come across somewhere, thought was cool, memorized.  But when the prof returned my paper, he'd circled that word in fiery red and written: Don't ever use this word again!  BTW: the word has a bird-hunting origin, but it also has this meaning, which is the one I intended:

to insert or interpolate, especially in a forced or incongruous manner: Additional information has been spatchcocked into the occasional random footnote.

So ... one definition of a useless word is one that we don't know or use.  All of us can think: I've never seen that word before; I have lived perfectly well without it; therefore--it's not really necessary.  All true.

But other people probably do know it--maybe not a lot of people.  But some.  And maybe one of those people will employ that word in an interesting way, will publish it.  And maybe you or I will see it.  And find it interesting, too.  And will learn it.  And plop it into a sentence sometime, where it will arouse the curiosity of someone else ... and off it goes.

Callipygian, I know, became a word that Robert Sawyer and I used just about every time we saw each other.  It made us both smile.

And that is reason enough for a word to live, I think.

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