The dictionary is full of long, euphonious (pleasant-sounding) words that nobody ever uses. These are words like rodomontade (a braggart), panjandrum (a snob), sialoquent (spitting while speaking) and therianthropic (having both human and animal characteristics).
Arcane words like countenance, consternation, contumely and contumacious never fail to captivate me. My love of polysyllabic words goes back to a high school English teacher who casually dropped words like pejorative, internecine, didactic and pedagogy. After class, I would rush to the nearest dictionary like a kid chasing after an ice cream truck on a sweltering July afternoon.
Medical terms, legal terms, slang, foreign words and phrases—there was no slaking my thirst. Sesquipedalians (long words) like supercilious, psilanthropic and eleemosynary danced in my head.
Writers George Will and William F. Buckley—both known for their abstruse vocabularies—would have been proud of my burgeoning lexicon. The longer, the more obscure and the more esoteric the word, the more I became enthralled with it. For example, one of my favorite words is floccinaucinihilipilification (the estimation of something as valueless). As one of the longest words in the English dictionary, it should garner an Olympic gold medal in the sport of lexicology (the study of the use of words).
We all know what a synonym is, but did you know that a contranym means a word having two opposite meanings, like sanction which can mean to approve or disapprove? Or cleave which can mean to sever or cling together?
A heteronym is a word that has the same spelling, but different pronunciations and meanings, like minute (60 seconds) and minute (little). Small wonder the English language can be difficult to learn.
What do harum-scarum, hocus-pocus and hoity-toity have in common? They are all reduplicative words which contain two identical or very similar parts. Another name for these words is tautonyms. We use tautonyms all day long without knowing what they’re called—bow-wow, walkie-talkie, wishy-washy, goody-goody, dilly-dally, teeny-weeny, flip-flop.
I’m not satisfied with the mere meaning of a word. I must also learn its etymology or origin. I was fascinated to discover that bamboozle came from the deceptive practice of substituting a cheap wood, bamboo, for a more expensive wood. Nincompoop is derived from the Latin legal term for insanity, “non compos mentis.” And the political concept of “gerrymandering” is actually named after a politician, Elbridge Gerry, combined with the end of the word “salamander.” As governor of Massachusetts from 1810 to 1812, Gerry approved a redistricting plan shaped like a salamander to give Republicans a distinct political advantage. Hence, the term gerrymander, which is eponymous, meaning it’s named after someone.
Occasionally, I might interject a word like soporific (inducing sleep) into a conversation just to elicit a bemused reaction, but I don’t believe in flaunting fifty-cent words to impress others or in flouting others’ plain speech.
If any of my old English teachers are still around, they would surely appreciate my thirst for language. Just this morning, I ran to the Internet dictionary to look up a medical term, “interstitial cystitis,” an IC, which is a chronic bladder condition often confused with “urinary tract infection” or UTI.
Sadly, my hard-copy Webster’s Dictionary is coming apart at the seams, taped up and tattered after years of page-turning, researching and poring over words and definitions in my fervor to expand my vocabulary. From aardvark to zymurgy (the study of fermentation), my verbal curiosity stretches like stars in the Milky Way, with each word coruscating (twinkling) in the night sky.
There is a word for everything, including a lover of words (logophilia). Though I am one proud logophile, my wife is a bibliophile (lover of books), yet I never see her racing to the dictionary like me. You can’t be a bibliophile without being a logophile, right? Or can you?
That’s a conundrum. Hmmm … an interesting word. Must check out its origin. (Noah Webster, here I come!)