Thursday, March 30, 2017

Words For Words: Take A Vocabulous Journey

"You know I've always liked that word, 'gargantuan'?
So rarely get an opportunity to use it in a sentence."
-Elle Driver, Kill Bill 2

I like big words and I cannot lie ...

Everyone who knows me, knows me as a writer and editor. It's all I ever aspired to be as a child: Someone with mastery over written expression. (OK, I wanted to write books; I've written hundreds of magazine articles, and coached and/or edited other people's books, but have yet to fulfill that dream for myself. But this year that will change.)

I can't count the number of times I'm with friends or colleagues in conversation, and someone will laugh and say, "Wait -- what's that word you just said?" Or, "Leave it to Janine with the sixty-four-thousand-dollar words!" Or, "What does that mean?" I taught English composition at a technical college for almost two years; at the end of one advanced class a 20something male student told me, "Ms. Coveney, I've barely understood anything you've said for the whole term."

Just last week, I was on my way to New York via bus. A girlfriend called me toward the beginning of the journey to tell me about a meeting she was going into; a couple of hours later she called back. "You're still on the bus?" she asked.

"Girl," I answered, "this is interminable."

"Oh my God," she said, "you are killing me with your word choice."



1. endless (often used hyperbolically): "we got bogged down in interminable discussions" synonyms: (seemingly) endless, never-ending, unending, nonstop, everlasting, ceaseless, unceasing, incessant, constant, continual, uninterrupted, sustained, monotonous, tedious, long-winded, overlong, rambling (Oxford Dictionary)*

Our conversation moved into the personal, and she confided her fear that she was lacking a particular skill. "It's just one of my personal ... " she trailed off.

"Foibles," I supplied.

"What?" She shrieked with laughter. "I so cannot with you."


a minor weakness or eccentricity in someone's character:
"they have to tolerate each other's little foibles"
synonyms: weakness · failing · shortcoming · flaw · imperfection · blemish · fault · defect · limitation · quirk · kink · idiosyncrasy · eccentricity · peculiarity *

Another friend was reading an article with the phrase "this doesn't augur well." She pointed to the word "augur" with raised brows.

"Bode," I said. "It doesn't bode well."


(augur well/badly/ill)
(of an event or circumstance) portend a good or bad outcome:
"the end of the Cold War seemed to augur well" · [more]
synonyms: bode · portend · herald · be a sign of · warn of · forewarn of · foreshadow · be an omen of · presage · indicate · signify · signal · promise · threaten · spell · denote · predict · prophesy · betoken · foretoken · forebode *

My phone friend is an intelligent, astute, and highly respected business woman. She is a skilled communicator, in fact. The other friend is also highly intelligent, and a writer herself. I just happen to be that person with the knack for amassing vocabulary words. With these words, I can make my communication so much more colorful and precise.

As I've said, I always wanted to be a writer. The road to mastering writing involves a great deal of reading, and in the process of all this reading I have learned -- and retained -- the meaning and usage of many words. This ability to retain and apply words correctly is not a rare skill. It's not even that unusual among writers, editors, academics, lawyers, and politicians, You've witnessed yourself those times when folks with impeccable language skills use them to communicate -- think Barack Obama, Michael Eric Dyson, even the late Biggie Smalls -- and the impact on the audience is magical.

The sheer number of expressive, colorful, explicit and musical words available in the English language is both staggering and exciting. But it seems that most folks develop and utilize a limited vocabulary, a small pool from which to choose the elements of their expression. They are either afraid to expand their vocabulary for fear of sounding foolish (or pompous or inauthentic), or they don't see the necessity. To me that's sad.

The truth is that the English language, as spoken, is constantly changing. In an age of broadcast-ready soundbites, social media messaging, and short attention spans, many longer, older, and more obscure words are today used only in formal writing -- and even those are falling out of use. These words disappear even faster from verbal communication, and the more seldom they are heard, the more people lose confidence in their pronunciation and meaning. At the same time, new words are being coined every day and added to the lexicon.

['leksi?kän, 'leksi?k?n]

the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge:
"the size of the English lexicon"

Most people speak the way their parents speak, or the way the people in their neighborhood speak, because that is what is acceptable and understandable to all involved. Some people develop a specialized jargon for whatever industry they work in or career they follow, for the same reasons. They may read widely, but they don't read deeply. They may understand an unfamiliar word in a text because of how it's used in a sentence, but they would never speak that word out loud. To speak differently can mark a person as unusual or remarkable -- as in my own case -- but many people fear not being accepted or understood by their peers. And that's a legitimate concern.

But let's expand our horizons and bulk up our communication. Let's not allow ourselves to be intimidated by language. Let's harness words and allow them to work for us, represent us well, and add shine to our public personas. Let's dare to make our vocabularies fabulous.

* For instance, look at all the wonderful synonyms for the definitions above! Those are incredible words as well!

With Words For Words, I'll be writing about a variety of words, some misunderstood or misused phrases, and more about the impact of how we speak (and write). I'm all for words, but I'm also for you, for your best self. Expanding vocabulary isn't just for kids in the classroom; it's for people who want to grow personally and professionally as well.