Big Words


I recently picked up The Right Word, a book that is, “A complete book about the uses and abuses of the English language by the contemporary master of vocabulary,” William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley, known for being a fairly complex and controversial figure whose social and political views I usually disagree with, was nonetheless a master of words. Hence, reading the book.

Sure to rankle a few feathers, he has an interesting chapter titled Sexist, Non-Sexist and Other Foreign Languages. He makes a pretty persuasive argument against the politically correct movement for gender neutral pronouns and against gender neutral ones.

The first sections focus on his frequent use of little known and obscure words. His argument basically boils down to: they are words and as a writer I should have the right to employ them. To extinguish the persistent accusation that he does it for affect, he cites a succinct and complete conceptual metaphor as his defense.

“I went downtown a dozen years ago to hear a black pianist about whom the word had trickled in that here was something really cool and ear-catching, besides which his name rolled about the tongue releasing intrigue and wry amusement, and so I heard Thelonious Monk. He struck some really, sure-enough bizarre chords, but you know, it would never have occurred to me to walk over and say, Thelonious, I am not familiar with that chord you just played. So cut it out please.

Effective. Buckley for the win. It is certainly making me more aware about the precision, or lack thereof, of word choice.

One of my favorite blogs, Futility Closet, frequently runs In a Word, devoted to some of the English language’s less recognizable and infrequently used words.

n. a lover of knowledge

n. ignorant; lacking knowledge

n. a lover of the truth

n. a childless woman

n. a newborn child’s cry

adj. giving birth to a god

n. one addicted to immoderate tea-drinking

v. to squeak like a rat

v. to bark like a dog

v. to cry like a quail

n. the noise made by peacocks

Possibly my favorite:

n. a circumnavigation, an epic journey, an odyssey


Another gem of a book is Dubious Doublets.

Take an enchanting tour through the tangled roots of English

Quick, what is the common denominator of the following words: onion, twinkle, travel, squad, foist, semester, October, noon, and dicker? By the time you finish reading Dubious Doublets, the answer will be as obvious to you as the relationship between lettuce and galaxy, nostril and thrill, or witch and vegetable

This surprising, enlightening, and entertaining guide uses a delightfully innovative approach to explore the evolution, lineage, and proliferation of words. Beginning with pairs of seemingly unrelated modern English words-dubious doublets-the author traces them back through the millennia to reveal not only their common roots, but also the living thoughts that form the true links between these improbable pairs.

You’ll discover, for example, why the words flamenco and flamingo are both related to the complexions of the Dutch, how the biblical son of Isaac is related to a French garment and a Halloween decoration, and what going berserk has to do with playing hopscotch. You’ll also uncover the common roots of such seemingly incompatible dyads as bully/friar, muscle/mouse, and everyone’s favorite, feather/hippopotamus.

Richly supplemented with cultural anecdotes, literary excerpts, and lively discussions on a broad variety of relevant topics-not to mention a series of whimsical illustrations that offer intriguing clues to word origins-Dubious Doublets is, quite simply, a word buff’s delight.

Word etymology has always intrigued me and as the description notes, there are some interesting and unimaginable twists and turns.

The assemblage of words can be pretty interesting too. Which is why The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is on my lengthy “to read” list.

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857, it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Anyone have any book or word suggestions?