Words learned recently (or, I’m finally looking things up, Mom)

Odd plants

One of my mental aspirations for 2015 is to improve my vocabulary, especially my spoken vocabulary. The nonsense of English grammar is easy to denigrate, but the joy of being a native English speaker is that we have this immensely rich and expansive vocabulary at our disposal! And we use just the barest fraction of it. At least, I know that’s my tendency.

Reading Norman Rush’s sesquipedalian novel Mating was the primary inspiration for undertaking this challenge. I read quite a bit, but I tend to gloss over words that are visually familiar to me, (falsely) assuming that I know what they mean. For example, I’ve seen the word truculent many times, but I always thought it meant sweet or even unctuous. On the contrary! I finally looked it up, only to discover that I’ve been very wrong; a truculent person is someone who is openly hostile or belligerent. So. There you go. I’m trying to follow my mother’s oft-repeated charge to us when we were question-filled children: Go look it up. That’s what I’m going to be doing, Mom. Looking it up.

Side Observation 1: App + Audio. I’ve found the Merriam-Webster app very helpful in this process, and I keep it near me now when I read. One of the oddities of English is our unregulated, unpredictable pronunciation. (In Japanese, for instance, there is never any confusion about pronunciation. If you can get down to the basic kana level of spelling, you always know how to pronounce it. No such ease in English. God have mercy on nonnative English speakers; I have tremendous respect for anyone who learns English as a second language.) In the past, I would learn a definition of a new word, but I would often be shy about using it, for fear of committing solecism* (*one of the new words I’ve learned). The simplicity of the audio feature of the dictionary is breathtakingly comforting to me.

Side Observation 2: Latin + French. First, I wish I had stuck with Latin. I learned a smattering of it in middle school, but what a useful thing to know. Again, sorry that I doubted you, Mom. Second, my enthusiasm to pick up French as my third language has been greatly augmented. An estimated one-third of English words are some variant (or bastardization, whichever you prefer) of Old French, and I’m learning that there’s this dazzling French history behind so many of the common words we use.

That said, here are a bunch of words I’ve learned lately (many from Mating) that I’d like to start using.

  • abeyance
  • abreaction
  • agon
  • albumen (*appropriate word to throw about in our domestic parlance, now that we have chickens)
  • bibelot
  • calumny
  • claustral
  • echt
  • factotum
  • febrile (*particular favorite)
  • fustian
  • inchoate (*always thought it meant “sad;” it doesn’t)
  • inter alia
  • legerdermain
  • metanoia
  • midden
  • noumenon
  • oleaginous
  • onanistic
  • pleonasm
  • postprandial
  • sacerdotal

Any words you’ve learned lately? Care to share?

House tidying, copy editing, letter writing

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How I spent all of my free time in college: Reading for pleasure. (Here, The Portrait of a Lady!) Circa October 2008.

Recent realization: I have a very consistent personality. Since I was a small child, I have been this way. Here’s the progression, as best I can chart it.

1. WORDS, READING THEM

It starts with words. When I was two, I would sit on my grandfather’s lap while he read the newspaper and identify letters that I knew. Letters were intrinsically interesting to me, as a baby, and I’m not sure why. I was read to continually by my family. I began memorizing full books when I was very little, but soon, by the age of three, I had taught myself how to read. (Mom says I pulled a random, unfamiliar book off the shelf while we were in the library and sat down and read it to her.) And so, naturally, I have surrounded myself with books ever since. Mom realized, when I was young, that time-out was an ineffective punishment for me. When she came in to let me out of my room, she was greeted by my solemn face as I pored over a book. “Oh, I’m not done yet, thank you,” I said dismissively. Words have always held a deep, deep pull for me. For whatever inexplicable reason.

 2. WORDS, WRITING THEM

Once I learned how to read, I then devoted myself to learning how to write. From the age of 7 until the present, I have kept a journal, mostly in handwritten form. As a child, I acquired scads of pen pals all over the country and the globe (some of whom I am still in touch with). I have always been fanatic about high-quality writing instruments and would hoard my good pens from the rest of the family. I took up calligraphy in middle school, and I am presently a calligrapher on the side. Loving words as much as I do, it has made sense to me that I should also love the process of physically writing them.

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Recent calligraphy on wedding invitation envelopes. Bluestocking Calligraphy.

3. WORDS, EDITING THEM

I was a persnickety child who loved rules. Applying this legalistic devotion to my love of reading, I cared tremendously for words and it hurt me when others did not equally care for them. (It still does. The large majority of writers on the internet, especially in the comments section, are constantly hurting my feelings, in a grammatical sense.) As a young girl, I was naturally good at spelling and at picking up the dictates of grammar (primarily through the natural osmosis of excessive reading).

I eventually went to college and got a dual degree in English (dreamy and fun) and journalism (practical and cut-throat). I thought I was going to be a reporter, because I loved print media and writing, but reporting made me extremely anxious, and I swiftly realized that I was not cut out for the competitive, high-energy demands of the job.

Around that time, I had an aggressive but insightful journalism professor who encouraged me to try copy editing. He goaded me to apply for a nationwide copy editing internship program, and I did. I got accepted and got to spend a glorious summer at the Denver Post copy editing and hiking. I had found my calling.

Copy editing, as I’ve written about before, brings me a lot of joy, and I’m really happy to be in this odd little profession. It’s a career for rule-loving introverts and jubilant nerds, and I’m delighted to be one of their number.

Quiet, simple home

4. SPACES, EDITING THEM

The leap that this personality bent takes is this: I seem to have a parallel approach to both words and spaces. I like to edit sentences. I also like to edit rooms. Or my wardrobe. Or other people’s junk drawers. Reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was a revelation. I spent about eight hours over the Christmas holiday cleaning out and organizing my parents’ closet, and it was fun for me. I loved it. The fastest route to my domestic happiness is a clean kitchen. I cannot abide visual clutter (even though I can get very lax about some things, like sweeping or dusting or vacuuming curtains, ever, in their lifetimes).

The epiphany was that my deep need for a tidy home maps perfectly onto my deep need for a tidy sentence. There’s a reason why I am this weird, obdurate person! It’s all very consistent. I understand that the reason I insist on Inbox Zero … is the reason that I can’t read a restaurant menu without itching for a red pen… is the reason that I compulsively make lists for everything I want to accomplish… is the reason that I read voraciously still… is the reason that I have to fold my shirts in a particular way… is the reason that an un-alphabetized bookshelf is anathema to me…

So. This is a poorly articulated question, but here it is: Do you find, like me, that your interests and hobbies converge into this seamless presentation of your (rather uniform) personality? In other words, the reason that you love X is because it’s really a very similar thing to your other great love, Y.

I’m sincerely curious to hear from you. I don’t think I’m alone in this…

My list of bad words

Words and phrases that make me feel sick, that make my eyes roll up into my head with contempt:

  • Alright
  • Authored
  • Effortlessly chic
  • Fab
  • Foodie
  • Go green
  • Home decor
  • Hubby
  • I don’t do [noun]…
  • Impacted
  • Impactful
  • Masterful
  • Penned
  • Pregnancy brain
  • Queried
  • Read [as a noun, “it’s a great read”]
  • Slut
  • Tablescape
  • Vintage [noun, junk you’re trying to sell]

I think “impactful” is the absolute worst. I want to choke people who use that word. I can barely type it without wanting to scream.

How about you? Any commonly used phrases that get your blood boiling? Oh, and happy Independence Day weekend! Use your freedom as an American to respect the English language.