Old Moon

Friday, March 12, 2010

Favorite Words

There are a few words that have jumped into common usage in the past fifty or so years that were once so rare as to make a reader have to go to the dictionary. I'm not sure how they achieved their new status, though I think political speechwriters may have brought "charisma" to the forefront. I learned it as a college freshman in a Greek class and never thought to see it anywhere else. The other is "serendipity." I do wish that one weren't becoming so hackneyed that I feel I need to find a synonym when I'm tempted to use it. The trouble is that I can't find another single word that says exactly what's implicated in that one word.

One of the things I'm often trying to do is write something under a maximum word count. For that, single words that can take the places of phrases are really neat to have. Of living languages, English is said to have probably the most separate words of any. (About 885,000.) True or not, borrowed from other languages or not, our mother tongue gives wondrous opportunities for precision. And that's my problem: too few writers, readers or listeners seem to care about that virtue. Whatever comes close to the intended meaning seems all too often to be sufficient.

Like any other erstwhile English teacher, I cringe at all the misuses of the verbs "to lie" and "to lay." I become twitchy with irritation at the references to "healthy food." I wouldn't eat sick turkey,would you? "Less calories" and "less commercials" make me almost willing to turn the darn TV set off and go read Jane Austen. I won't "bring my car" to the garage to get it fixed. I don't have the knowledge or the equipment. I'm going to take it to the shop. Well, you get my drift.

So to go back to those two words at the top of this post--I'd like for someone to suggest some precise synonyms for each of them; not approximate meanings. I can use a Thesaurus like anyone else. This is a challenge.

I just love it when there's one word that's just right. Then I feel justified in using it, and nowadays nobody would criticize my diction for being too hoity-toity, would they?

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