Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wanted: an easy synonym for hermeneutic

After reading James Woods’s piece on language, which was recommended to me, I want to throw up my hands and declare that English exists at at least a hundred different levels of familiarity. I cannot possibly hope to rank them. Is it a matter of knowing more words enough to define them for your SATs, to use them into everyday speech, or to use them in formal writing? Presumably some words outrank others. But since most unfamiliar words are unfamiliar because they are, to some extent, someone else’s jargon, not knowing these words truly indicates only that you haven’t had reason to encounter them. There’s nothing in the language Woods describes that marks the user as a better person, a smarter person, or even more of a poet.

You can see where this leaves William F. Buckley, Jr., the pompous prat.

Well, I went through Woods’s piece and made two lists: words I know and will actually use if the need arises — which it rarely does because these are not everyday concepts for most people — and those I did not know before reading his article. Here are the two lists, and those italicized are not recognized by Word spell-check.

Words I know and might actually use: litotes, recrudescence, concupiscence, threnody, quondam, hieratic, florilegium, nonage, echt, oriflamme, gravamen, cathexis, obtund, dyslogistic, saponaceous, benthic, oneiric, deracinated, coruscating, albedo, abscissa, rincon, scree, sastrugi, arête, moraine, cuboidal, copasetic (I’d spell it copacetic), terrazzo, rebar, spavined, withers, sacerdotal, samsara, scrim, fungible, flocculent, aigrette, boiserie, facer, finial, matutinal, moue, ogee, ormolu, scalpel, caryatid, loggia, narthex, parterre, pilasters, squinch. My list suggests interests in architecture and glaciology, which is what I meant by one group’s jargon. Thanks to Christine for sastrugi, which she used recently in her blog. Full disclosure: I have been married to someone who uses gravamen in casual speech.

Why do you suppose Word recognizes terrazzo but not rebar? Terrazzo is out of fashion but rebar is used everywhere.

Words I don’t believe I ever saw before: sabulous, immund, nates, macrobian, venenate, kerf, obelize, eirenicon [google says that there is no such word, but I do know “irenic”], protreptic, barrial, sesquipedality, epyllion, bajada, zugunruhe, banausic, collet, foederati, gammadion, gonfalon, sumpter, sérac.

I have been excoriated (q.v.) for using in general speech milieu and in situ. The latter is in my head because of years as a medical editor, and as for milieu ... well, what other word means the same thing?

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