Intoxicated and Enchanted by Words

8th April 2019

RAMBLING speeches and bad writing litter our lives. If talk is cheap, it’s because the supply usually exceeds the demand. But the best words, the right words, fit snugly enough to keep out windy disquisitions.

We each treasure certain words, jingling them in our imaginations like rare coins. We store them up until we can find the best occasion to spend them in conversationor deposit them on to a page in the hope of gaining some interest.

Even people who are not known as lovers oflanguage have favourite words that sparked joy in their childhoods or that simply feel good in their mouths. My uncle Phil, who probably never read a book in his life, labelled anything negative as ‘‘ ambiguous’’ (‘‘ I have an ambiguous feeling about that horse running in today’s fifth at Belmont’’ ) and anything positive as ‘‘ laudable’ ’ (‘‘ Her eggplant was solaudable, I had two plates’’ ).

I used one of my favourite words, ‘‘ careen’’ , in a recent column, and the number of readers who commented on it surprised me. Fans of the word, they were happy to see it up and around again. It was like ‘‘ careen’ ’ had been sick or was just released on parole. I asked readers and friends for their favourites. Responses poured in.

Lisa D. Saunders said that when shewas very young, ‘‘ I loved the word ‘thicket’ so much that I would whisper it quietly to myself. I’ve moved on, but nothing has replaced it in my affections.’’ Krysia Nelson loves the word ‘‘ caper’’ and wanted to make sure I understood that she meant ‘‘ as in adventure, not as in the edible garnish’’ .

Did seven people declare fervid affection for the word ‘‘ crepuscular’ ’ because they were writing at dusk? Perhaps it should not have surprised me when five friends put forward the word ‘‘ plethora’ ’ since I’ve always believed there should be a movie starring ‘‘ Plethora: The Goddess of Excess’’ .

Following in the pathof elegant words beginning with the letter P, my student Nicole taught me there’s a word for the smell of the earth right after it rains: petrichor.

Joan Muller’s word was ‘‘ flense’’ , which, she said, ‘‘ spellcheck had mocked most cruelly’’ . I had to look it up. And today, therefore, I learned there is a term for the slicing of the skin or fat from a carcass, especially that of a whale. Ikept reading and learned to my chagrin (another favourite of mine) that if I’d read my Herman Melville or my Cormac McCarthy with more care, Iwould have already been familiar with flensing.

So, basically, I flense my first drafts (they are very like a whale). I’ll use all the words that come to mind and some that arrive at the keyboard apparently having bypassed my mind altogether, reaching my fingertips via the ether (ahhhh, the lovely ‘‘ ether’’ ). Half of what I write doesn’t make it to the last version or even the second-to-last version.

I save all iterations, however, just in case. I’m a draft-hoarder , collecting junk I write and piling it up in heaps inside files innocuously labelled ‘‘ Outtakes’’ . It’s the same impulse that makes peopleput rusted cars up on cinder blocks.

I’ll admit it’s a small flaw (flaw — strong, short word, good mouth sound; overused when referring to fictitious characters but not used often enough when referring to actual human beings) or a foible (fun to say). Either way, it’s not a habit I’m wont (a little archaic, but nevertheless handy) to change.

Some words are likepizza toppings in that they can be way overdone, but in the right measure, they’re delicious. These include ‘‘ calamity’’ , ‘‘ finagle’’ , ‘‘ ineffable’’ , ‘‘ grimy’’ , ‘‘ flout’’ , ‘‘ elixir’’ , ‘‘ swig’’ , ‘‘ gaudy’’ , ‘‘ tousled’’ , ‘‘ austere’’ , ‘‘ jubilant’ ’ and ‘‘ fey’ ’ — oh, could I go on.

As a writer, Iroll around in words the way cats roll around in catnip. The effect is the same: delirious with pleasure, I abandon myself. I toss them around, self-indulgently making a mess I know will have to be cleaned up later. Sometimes, though, fortuitously (‘‘ graceful, always with a happy ending’’ ), they slipinto place.

Pick your favourites, but hunt for more. You’re as good as your word. — TCA

Gina Barreca is an author and distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut.

Copyright © 2019 The Otago Daily Times

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