People make fun of me for the way I talk. Sometimes they are even offended by my use of big or unusual words. They think I’m trying to show off or, even worse, make them feel stupid. But the truth is much simpler (and kinder!) than that.
I’m a word nerd.
I’m a complete language freak. I love words! It’s why I learned French and Russian. It’s why I majored in English and became a language teacher. As my Writing Center colleagues and students can attest, I become positively giddy when I encounter a clever turn of phrase or a brand new word. A new word is like a newly unearthed treasure I want to pull from the ground and share with the whole world! Look at this! Isn’t it shiny and beautiful!
English is such a rich language, full of these treasures, and I don’t see why any word should be buried, relegated to the darkness. If I discover a new one, especially one that sounds funny, trips neatly off the tongue and has a perfectly specific meaning, I will incorporate it into my own vocabulary and use it as often as possible.
And I’m fortunate because I’ve been blessed with the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory. I take no credit for the ability; I didn’t earn it. It’s genetic. My sister and my kids have it too. We can just hear something and forever remember it exactly. That gift makes it pretty easy for me to absorb new words.
So when people accuse me of showing off or belittling them, I’m hurt and a little confused. In general, I don’t “dumb down” my language for anyone. To me, doing so would mean I am assuming the listener is not smart. The only creatures I “dumb down” for are animals and small children, and even then, I don’t speak differently unless I am explaining a difficult concept that a child truly needs to understand. I talk the same way to pretty much everyone and assume that anyone I speak to is just as smart as I am or smarter. If they don’t understand a word I use, I’m delighted to explain it, and I imagine they feel the way I do when someone shares a new word with me – excited!
Now that I’m older and also since I started teaching at the university, people seem more tolerant of the way I speak. It’s so liberating!
So in the spirit of sharing and educating and getting giddy, may I present some of my favorite words?
It is a diverse list. Some of the words I love for their sound. Some of them for their surgically precise meaning. Others have happy associations with people or places. This list could be 10 or 20 times as long. Believe it or not, I whittled it down!
Entropy - Learned during an undergrad biology class at IU. It summarizes what I see as the greatest struggle in my life: maintaining order in the face of invading chaos!
Stygian – Learned from a Pakistani chemistry student who was writing a lab report on a dark coagulate. He got tired of the word “dark,” so he pulled “Stygian” out of the thesaurus. It does mean dark, but it’s poetic, so it was completely out of context in a chemistry report. Ah, the thesaurus.
Efficient (usually used with “effective”) – I just love the meaning of these words. They got tossed around so much at the insurance company where I was a tech writer, for a while I hated them. But efficiency is vital in my struggle against entropy, so they’re back in my good graces.
Patois – Learned from one of my fellow grad students at Butler. She kept talking about the “patois” of the aristocratic Indians in Salman Rushdie’s novels. I had to look it up. You should too.
Going concern – Okay, so this one’s a phrase. And it’s kind of jargon-y. But we used it a lot at the insurance company and at Disney, and no other word or phrase in English has this meaning. I just find it an interesting concept.
Delegate – As a verb. It’s something I must do more of, but I’m a control freak.
Hermeneutics – I run across this one often when I tutor rhetoric students. I like the sound of it and the way it looks on paper.
Epistemology – Another one I see in graduate-level papers, especially social work students. I don’t really understand it well, but it’s fun to say.
Ecumenical – Learned this one from the Merriam-Webster “word of the day” app. I like the way my mouth moves when I say it.
Self-deprecating – Learned this one from my mother who used it all the time when my sister and I were adolescents.
Aplomb – The newest word on the list! I heard one of Jon Stewart’s guests use it on The Daily Show a couple weeks ago, ran to look it up, and just like everything about it.
Synergize – Disney-ese. I heard or used this word almost every day during the decade I worked for The Company.
Permutation – First encountered this as a math concept in Mrs. Hender-Bob’s advanced algebra class. I use its non-algebraic definition every chance I get.
Logistics – Another word, like entropy and efficient, that signifies my highest priorities in life.
Contrived – Learned from Simon LeBon of Duran Duran who was arguing with a reporter about whether or not the band was “contrived.” It’s just the perfect opposite of “organic” and so much more specific than “artificial” or “unnatural.”
Bougie – French word for a fat candle. We don’t have a good word for that object in English. It’s not a taper, a pillar, a votive or a tealight. It’s fatter and squatter.
Ciao – Like “aloha” which I also love, it can mean either “hello” or “goodbye.” That appeals to me. Plus it sounds cool in every way.
Nimble – Learned from “Ghostbusters.” Enough said.
Kaibab – Learned in the Grand Canyon. I love the way it sounds and feels. Plus, it reminds me of our hike.
Cooperate – I use this word a lot when I tickle my children, so it reminds me of them. I tell them, “If you’ll cooperate, this’ll just take a second.” When I get to “cooperate,” they start giggling because they know what’s coming. So the word makes me smile now.
Walrus – Another word that reminds me of my kids. Also, Ferris Bueller (“I could be the walrus. I’d still have to bum rides off people.”), the Beatles and “Alice in Wonderland.” Whenever we have to end an activity or go somewhere, I say, “The time has come, the walrus said, and I am the walrus. Coo coo cachoo,” synthesizing John Lennon and Lewis Carroll. The kids understand. See? Told ya I was a word nerd!