Caution: Uncommon Words

As a teacher of high school English, I embraced each lesson as an opportunity to introduce my students to interesting words. Words with grit, words with substance, words that would tie your tongue into knots if you broke the speed limit. My surreptitious instruction started on day one when I introduced myself as a bibliophile and logophile.

From logophile it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to logorrhea. “It’s like diarrhea, but with words!” I eagerly explained, hoping that my graphic analogy would get their attention. The skeptics were urged to consult the Merriam Webster dictionaries perched in the front of the room like lonely wallflowers.

Occasionally I might spare my students the arduous task of leafing through the alphabet; on these days they were allowed to use their phones. The bonus of the online dictionary is audible; with a click on the speaker icon, my students could hear the proper pronunciation of this foreign word. In a scene straight out of science-fiction, atonal cyber-voices filled my classroom with chants of “Log-oh-REE-ah.”

Having won the battle, however, I still lost the war. Unlike other five-star words like juggernaut and troglodyte, logorrhea did not make its way into their post-literate lexicon. But on the night of the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Rachel Maddow said “logorrhea” on live tv.

The articulate MSNBC commentator had unearthed the perfect word to describe the behavior of the bellicose candidate, the verbal bully, who pushed his frustrated competitor to say, “Will you just shut up man?!”

I can only hope at least one of my students heard Rachel’s artful elucidation (of the spectacularly cacophonous gallimaufry of words), registered the dim echo of a certain crazy teacher, and nodded wisely.

Now that I am writing, I have an even greater opportunity to invite obscure words up on stage. I might use words like snollygoster and bloviate to describe the next presidential debate. Or looking outside after a busy day, I might wax rhapsodic about the crepuscular light softly shimmering like a hummingbird in slow motion. Of course, words like abibliophobia and tsundoku will appear in my autobiography (along with embarrassed acknowledgements of my creaky knees and very unladylike borborygmus).

Hopefully those in my audience will appreciate the unfamiliar words I’ve unwrapped for them and put on display. Perhaps I should introduce my writing with a playful message of reassurance: Although you may bump into unfamiliar words while reading this piece, do not be alarmed. No readers have been injured or maimed by any words brought to life by the author.

And for those who still get the collywobbles just imagining the sinister words lurking in my prose, I bow before the wildly inventive bohemian and iconoclast of children’s literature: Edward Gorey. As a writer and illustrator of over 100 books, Gorey upended Victorian expectations with words that were unique, unusual, and unexpected:

Sing jigglepin, sing jogglepen,
The Wuggly Ump has left its den.
Across the hills the Wuggly Ump
Is hurtling on, kerbash, kerblump.
Sing hushaboo, sing hushaby,
The Wuggly Ump is drawing nigh.
Sing twiddle-ear, sing twaddle-or,
The Wuggly Ump is at the door.
It’s making an unholy fuss;
Why has it come to visit us?


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Catherine Yurkunas

Catherine Yurkunas

A lifetime logophile and bibliophile, I collect abecedaria, alliteration, and epic novels.