Some of my favorite words in the English language
Despite the vicissitudes of the day, I managed to pull together this post. Please spare it your opprobrium.
Like many writers, I am also a logophile. And like most logophiles, my love of words is an inequitable one. In other words, I have my favorites.
The list of these is ever evolving. Amazon’s Kindle — which is always either by my bedside or in my satchel — has a wonderful feature by which the device remembers your dictionary lookups (it doesn’t even require an active data connection to store these). Thus, by periodically reviewing this, the list keeps growing as I encounter new words from different authors.
Compared to my adopted second language — Modern Hebrew, I live in Israel — English has a remarkably diverse lexicon.
Estimates vary, but by some (Webster) there are 470,000 words in English. Modern Hebrew, by comparison, has only 33,000 words. The difference, needless to say, is more than 10-fold.
Practically speaking, the result of this is that it’s not uncommon for words in Modern Hebrew to serve triple or even quadruple uses — similar to the way in which makolets (convenience stores) often serve as de facto nightlife venues and bars and lotto stands all rolled into one. Such is life in Israel.
דחוף (dahuf), for instance, can be used to indicate that a matter is pressing. But it’s also the standard verbiage affixed to door signs indicating that pulling is not the expected way to open the door. Which makes sense occasionally like when you feel an urgent need to bail on a boring event. But at other times, particularly for one not accustomed to the dynamic, working with a more constrictive lexicon can be a little bewildering.
Old habits being that, I love the nuance that English’s comparative wealth of words create. It’a also the language that I write in most days.
Some that stand out as favorites include these:
Opprobrium — harsh rebuke
Even looking at the relatively recent graph provided by Google Trends, one can see that usage of the word opprobrium seems to be in slow decline. If the time frame were extrapolated to centuries past, the decline would undoubtedly be far more dramatic (most references to the word I have encountered are from around the time of Dickens).
According to Merriam-Webster, the first definition of opprobrium is “something that brings disgrace.”
Unsurprisingly given its ending, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymoline.com) confirms that the word owes its origins to Latin.
Its adjective is opprobrious, although this is heard even more seldomly than its noun counterpart.
If a proposal or suggestion is described as being met with opprobrium — or an opprobrious reaction, which means essentially the same thing — then you know that it really rubbed people up the wrong way.
Saying that something was met with disgust oddly doesn’t seem to capture quite the same level of repugnance that this residue from Latin does. There’s also something oddly powerful about the word’s obvious foreign origin.
Sample everyday usage for the modern obscure word-loving man: “When I suggested to Cynthia that she come back to my place for drinks, her friend cast an opprobrious look in my direction that said nothing — but spoke volumes.”
Mandarin — a bureaucratic clerk
Although it’s not listed on my resume — for the tenure was too short — one of my employment stints in Israel was as a part time copy editor at The Jerusalem Post, the country’s best-known English language broadsheet newspaper.
There I was responsible for heeding the dictates of the IDF military censor so as not to spill military secrets out to the great unwashed masses of the newspaper-buying public (I kid. Sort of). And fact-checking and all the other things that copy editors — the unsung heroes of the newspaper business — get up to.
One of my crowning achievements, during that brief but glorious time, was succeeding in managing to slip a reference to the word ‘mandarin’ past the watchful gaze of my line editor — who was generally not fond of sharing obscure words with the paper’s readership.
Not only did I succeed in possibly introducing this fantastic word to at least a few readers in Israel — one can only hope — I managed to couple that with a touch of alliteration.
Google bears evidence to a sentence that I authored affirming that “the military mandarin said that bureaucratic haggling is occurring between the Finance Ministry and the IDF.”
As students of the orient can probably guess, this somewhat pejorative word for a low-level bureaucrat — these days sadly fairly seldomly encountered — owes its origins to Ancient China.
The Online Etymology Dictionary (etymoline.com — well worth bookmarking) traces its origins back to the middle ages and derives the appellation, in turn, from Portuguese and older Dutch.
The next time your driving license application is behind held up at the DMZ, you have my permission to consider the fact that a “malevolent mandarin” may be at fault for the hold-up.
Vicissitudes — the ups and downs of life
While some are fond of the fact that Modern Hebrew has a narrow lexicon — there’s something about the baldness of the language that they find appealing — the existence of words like vicissitude demonstrates, for me, why words with narrow meaning are wonderful. Some would argue, in fact, that a language can never have too many words.
Mirriam-Webster, in its second definition for the word, calls a vicissitude, in the singular, “a favorable or unfavorable event or situation that occurs by chance.” It gives as a sample usage the one that I would reflexively reach for if asked in which context I would use this word: “the vicissitudes of daily life.”
Life is full of vicissitudes, you know. But oddly, I find that having a precise term with which to reference them helps dealing with them just a little — even if the word is essentially an anachronism.
Also wonderful and worthy of inclusion en passant: tumultuous.
“Despite the vicissitudes of the day and his tumultuous mood, Daniel found time to write another post on Medium.
To condescend (archaic meaning)
Sometimes, despite the best efforts of anoraks like me (British English: an enthusiast) words fall out of use entirely.
Like the dinosaurs, they lamentably go by the wayside and can be found only in the kind of tomes that only the most dedicated of logophiles keep on their shelves.
At other times, their meanings change. Or rather, older meanings are lost to history.
Condescend is one such word.
The Cambridge dictionary provides an entry for “condescend to do something.” Its definition is: “if you condescend to do something, you agree to do something that you do not consider to be good enough for your situation.”
These days, of course, one doesn’t hear condescend used much as anything other than a negative adjective. One who is supercilious, or who looks down on others, is often described as having a ‘condescending attitude.”
But in days gone by (mostly, the use is still somewhat current) to condescend had a somewhat favorable meaning. Example: “despite her busy schedule, Mr. Daniel condescended to meet our group.” A better one: “despite the fact that I was attired but in scruffy shorts and a t-shirt, the bouncer condescended to permit me entry to the nightclub.”
Oddly — as an old teacher once told me — ‘present’ has gone through a similar morphology.
These days, present is regarded as virtually synonymous with ‘current’. But in older times, ‘present’ indicated a time in the near future. “I will attend dinner presently” meant that one would shortly attend dinner — rather than that one was already there.
Ullaged — a bottle that is partially empty
Many moons ago, while wandering through an airport book store in London, I stumbled upon a wonderful piece of authorship entitled The Bluffer’s Guide To Wine.
Not only was this a superlatively useful book, it was part of an excellent series whose stated aim was to equip readers with the bare minimum level of knowledge to appear passively competent in a given subject at, say a dinner party. It has served me ever since.For those interested, the Bluffer’s Guide series can be found on Amazon and elsewhere.
This esteemed piece of authorship — which has imbued with me just enough knowledge to impress wine snobs ever since I read it — introduced me to the word ‘ullaged’.
Mirriam Webster states its definition as “the amount that a container (such as a tank or a cask) lacks of being full.” Think, for a moment, about the vast implications for this worthy appellation. Particularly for those surrounded by those imbibing.
The next time you’re at a dinner party and you see a half-empty bottle of wine — perhaps residing next to a somewhat inebriated guest (another great word!), perhaps not — you have my encouragement to cast a knowing glance across the table, pick up the bottle, and remark nonchalantly, “ah, slightly ullaged I see.”
Words are wonderful things.
And our lives are enriched by the presence of the more obscure ones among them.
Desirous — one who wishes for something. Sample usage: “despite the late hour and the preceding pub crawl I had engaged in, I found myself desirous for one more beer.”
Exigencies — needs. “In spite of the exigencies of my lofty position as a freelance writer, I managed to find time to write this blog post.”
Also: too many others to truthfully fit into one post.