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Sherman Says: Exercise your vocabulary muscles

SPRINGVILLE — You can tell a lot about a person, based on his or her vocabulary and willingness to use words not found in conventional conversation. While unusual words may make a person sound smarter, they are also a clue to how well that individual would do, playing trivia games.

Many non-mainstream words just sound cool. Do not feel ashamed for plugging them into your conversations, as I once did.

A truck went down the street this morning, hauling a tank labeled “non-potable water.” “Potable” means suitable for drinking, but how many people know that?

Some of the most powerful and best-sounding words in the English language come from the Bible’s Old Testament. Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, is also known as “Skull Hill.”

A Baptist congregation in Spanaway, Wash., took it as its formal name. So did the Missionary Baptist Church in Long Beach, Calif. The hamlet of Golgotha Church, Ga., sustained heavy damage in the Civil War, prior to the siege of Atlanta.

From the same week in history, comes “Gethsemane,” the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. It’s a coarse word with a jagged beginning and a smooth ending. Parallels abound.

Another gem is “Leviathan.” The earliest use of this word appears in the Bible, as the name of a monstrous sea creature. It is also the name of a book about political philosophy, written in 1651, by Thomas Hobbes. This was also the name chosen for a massive, 19th century train car, as well as a roller coaster at what is now Canada’s Wonderland. Words can be recycled so easily.

The verb “impeller” has a rich visual texture. It refers to the blades within a pump or turbine which push the fluid into another component. Close your eyes, as you say it, and you can see the word in action.

The Latin language has a great deal to do with our lofty English creations. “Audacity” is rooted in the Latin word audax, meaning bold. It is also the name of an audio editing application.

How about the word “avatar?” It was born of Hindu mythology and meant the incarnation of a god. Now, we use it to describe our likeness on online multiplayer games or the CG-heavy 2009 movie.

When the Buffalo Sabres added a new Russian hockey player in 1999, no one in our house could remember his name, let alone pronounce it. Thus, Maxim Afinogenov became known as simply “onomatopoeia,” for several weeks. It was one way we kept onomatopoeia from being ephemeral, or easily forgotten.

“Rampart” is a durable word that is most often associated with the walls of a fort. It’s even laced into our national anthem. It found new life in a classic TV show called “Emergency.”

“Shenanigans” are playful misdeeds, far more forgivable than routine horseplay or goofing around.

Chances are that if someone has difficulty spelling the word, it is not in his or her repertoire. Today, though, people say “playlist,” instead of repertoire, but the latter sounds so sophisticated.

The above use of four consecutive words beginning with the same letter is called alliteration, a lost art in the literary world. Modern writers are urged to keep this skill in their quiver, at all times.

I shocked my daughter one night while watching “Jeopardy!” by knowing the names of the two types of coal. I have not used “bituminous” or “anthracite” in a sentence since then.

Many words in the English language are misused. A cataclysm does not mean any broad type of disaster or violent upheaval. Its ancient roots specifically refer to a flood or a deluge.

Therefore, if the North Koreans threaten the United States with the apocalypse, its leaders should understand that this ancient word refers to an ultimate revelation. I suspect it will be them, not us, who receive a revelation, should they fire the first shot.

Newspaper editors are constantly being told to write shorter stories and use words easily understood by those readers possessing only a fourth grade education. That would be calamitous.

David Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.
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