I love words. You probably do, too, or this site would bore you to death. I was going to say it’s a side effect of loving to read, but maybe not. Maybe loving words comes first, like a love of beets leads to a love of beet and fennel soufflé served with pureed bitter greens and a sprinkling of asiago cheese and pomegranate seeds. (I just made that up. I don’t know why. Don’t ask.) Either way, one of the delights of reading is the new words you meet, usually absorbing their meaning effortlessly, if not always with great accuracy, from the context. I believe that what we read has a significant effect on what we see, understand, and learn, beyond the facts and ideas presented. I used the word vitriolic in a Sunday School class recently, and one of the ladies didn’t know what it meant. It made me wonder if knowing the meaning of the word makes me more aware of that type of speech. If I didn’t, would I wish for a word to describe it, or would I just call it mean spirited and go on? I guess I think that we tend to see more clearly what we can name. If you know a petiole from a sepal from a stigma, don’t you tend to study a flower more carefully and be more aware of each of these parts than if you only know petal and stem? (The opposite is also true, and deciding which is more prevalent would make a great research project or debate. As long as it didn’t get vitriolic, of course.)
However it works, I love discovering new words, even if I don’t remember them all. That’s one reason I enjoy the PBS radio show Says You so much. It revolves around fascinating bits of knowledge and obscure words. That’s where I learned the word moot doesn’t only mean previously decided and therefore not worth arguing, but also open to argument or debate, (supposedly what “it’s a moot point” means). Don’t you just love English? It’s always full of surprises. Says You also taught me the very useful word omphaloskepsis, which means navel-gazing. I hope to have reason to use it someday. That brings me to one of the natural benefits of being well read -- showing off. Not that I’d ever even want to do that. Not me. Still, it’s an ego booster when the six erudite members of the show’s panel get stumped by words that seem simple to me. Screever, for example. I can only guess that none of them were ever fans of Mary Poppins; my friend Linda Ketchum and I saw the movie every day it played in our little town. “Today I’m a screever, and as you can see, a screever’s an artist of highest degree,” Burt sang as he drew pictures in chalk on the sidewalk. I knew that, but none of them did. So don’t ever say movies are a waste of time.
I learn new words reading blogs, too. My latest discovery is conflation, found on a comment about Pride and Prejudice. (I do find fans of Jane Austin tend to have better than average vocabularies. Is that because they learn new words by reading the books, or they enjoy the books because the have the vocabulary to read them? Another chicken-or-the-egg debate, if you are so minded.) The word in question is conflation. The writer used it while discussing Mr. Darcy, admitting she was “conflating both of the movies.” I thought it was a typo at first. I couldn’t figure out what word they meant to use, so I wondered if the writer had made it up. (What’s the word for a made-up word?) I tried to deduce the meaning from the roots, but got nowhere so I decided to look it up. Sure enough, it was a real word, meaning to bring together, meld or confuse two or more individuals, concepts, or places, until there seems to be only one identity and the differences are lost. Awesome.
Fromage is a word you and I already know from cooking, as it’s French for cheese. When it was used as part of a French phrase in a movie review I did a double take. I don’t know the language, but a lot of times you can winkle out the meaning by finding word parts you do know. (Winkle: to pry, force or displace from a position, often used with out.) It didn’t occur to me to change cheese to cheesy, which is indeed another use of the word. The other word that stumped in context came up recently. I’ve been reading Mari Strachan’s debut novel The Earth Hums in B Flat. I picked it up because of the title and was drawn in immediately, then thrown back out upon reading that Jones the Butcher had his faggots cooking outside, intended for consumption by all the families in town. Were the people in town so poor they’d been reduced to consuming bundles of sticks? Or military men? Old women? It made no sense, so I ignored it until it came up two more times. What in the world were they eating? If I knew more about my roots, I would have understood immediately, as Faggots (Ffagodau) are a Welsh meatball made from minced pig liver, onions, breadcrumbs, and lots of pepper. Their name is based on the word meaning a mixture or combination. There are recipes available on the web if you need something for dinner tonight. Or you could try Welsh Rabbit, a conflation of fromage served over toast. Bon appetite.
Read Well, Friend
BTW -- NEOLOGISM is the word for a newly invented word or phrase.