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Word Watching

Not all words are created equal.

Joe Petro
Joe Petro
Sep 23, 2013 · 6 min read

What’s your favorite word? Maybe it’s something pleasing to the ears, like soliloquy or effervescent. Or perhaps it’s a word that’s just fun to say, like serendipity or discombobulate. Then again, maybe your favorite word just makes you feel good, like love or grace.

What about your least favorite word? Maybe it’s something icky, like mucus or pus. It could be something somber, like hate or death. And of course, there’s also the holy trinity of least favorite words: moist, ointment, and panties.

Sorry, that got ugly fast. Here, let me fix it: Harmonious. Vivacious. Loquacious. Ephemeral. Lullaby. Nincompoop. Cellar door.

There, there. It’s all better, now. Splendid.

There’s no exact science to it, but it seems like words are usually evaluated based on their definitions, connotations, or phonaesthetic appeal. I, on the other hand, tend to appreciate words for much different, perhaps unusual, reasons. Let me explain.

I like the word sarcastic. Sarcasm is defined as “harsh or bitter derision or irony.” When employed, it is often described as biting,which is a synonym for caustic. And the word caustic is, fittingly, only one letter off from being the end of the word sarcastic. It’s like the word defines itself for you.

Or there’s acquiesce, which means “to submit or comply without protest.” It makes me think of aqua, not just because of the a, q, and u, but because of the fluidity with which the syllables flow through each other. This makes me think of liquids, which, as we all know, have no fixed shape, but instead take the shape of their container. In other words, a container demands the liquid take a certain shape and the liquid acquiesces to that demand.

To finagle is to “obtain by trickery.” If you suspect someone is trying to trick you, you might be wondering what their angle is. Well, to find that angle, you need not do more than swap the a and n at the end of finagle.

Other words have these sort of synonymous anagram hints built into them, too. Take sidle for instance, which means “to move sideways or obliquely.” When I picture this particular action, I picture a sort of sliding motion. Coincidentally, slide is an anagram of sidle.

Other words are just physically constructed better than others. Consider parallel for example, which means “extending in the same direction, equidistant at all points, and never converging or diverging.” The beauty of the word parallel is that there is a set of parallel lines contained in the letters that make up the word. Even better, the parallel lines in parallel happen to be the “pair of l’s.”

There’s also the word queue, which is “a line” (as in the type you stand and wait in). What’s fitting about queue is the way the redundant u and e evoke the feeling of waiting in a queue. And if you really want to get imaginative here, you might be able to picture the Q or q at the head of the word as a turnstile or a bouncer waiting behind one of those exclusive velvet ropes: two things you typically find at the end of queues.

Similarly, the word caterpillar sort of resembles a caterpillar (the long, skinny bug, not the giant, yellow construction equipment). Its ten letters elongate the word, and it has alternating peaks and valleys that come from t, p, and ll. Picture an inchworm. Okay, maybe you think that last one’s a stretch. Fine. We don’t have to argue about it.

Most people don’t enjoy arguing, anyway—it can be frustrating. Coincidentally, that is exactly what makes the word argue so great. Its two syllables are, individually, two exclamations that you just might end up shouting in the middle of an argument: “ARGH!” and “YOU!”

Bulbous is often listed amongst the least popular words in the English language, but I think the opposite of the adjective. The word bulbous means “fat, round, or bulging,” which is fitting because almost all the letters used to spell bulbous are fat, round or bulging.

Or take the word jilt, which means “to reject or cast aside (a lover) especially abruptly or unfeelingly.” Notice how the first three letters in jilt all seem to be facing toward the left? Now look at sad, little, lowercase t—staring off to the right with his back turned to all the other letters. It’s almost as if this sulking, lowercase t is jil’s jilted lover.

Speaking of things that end abruptly, the word abrupt seems to end that way, doesn’t it? It’s like it’s over before it even begins. Stab feels appropriately short, as well. The sound of the word knife has a certain sharpness to it, also, and the silent k seems to give it even more of an edge. There’s also the word sever. Notice how the pointed v in the middle of it appears to, well, sever it in half?

And while we’re on the topic of cutting things short, we shouldn’t forget about the word staccato, which means “with each sound or note sharply detached or separated from the others.” It’s not an onomatopoeia, but thanks to those three hard syllables, it is appropriately difficult to vocalize the word staccato in a manner that is not staccato.

There’s also the word beige. It’s soft, bland, and utterly inoffensive. However, that makes it the perfect word to define the most soft, bland, and utterly inoffensive color in the visible spectrum of light. Coincidentally, that’s why the word bland is great, too. There’s no better way to describe the word bland than by calling it bland.

And speaking of words that describe themselves, we shouldn’t forget about mellifluous which is defined as “(of a sound) pleasingly smooth and musical to hear.” But everybody already loves that word, anyway.

There is plenty to appreciate when it comes to numbers, too. For instance, zero feels right because it has a o in it. I like the way seven looks because the v in the middle of it somewhat resembles a sideways numeral 7. In the same vein, the lowercase g in eight closely resembles the numeral 8.

But there’s one number whose spelling just doesn’t add up, and that number is eleven. It could have easily been spelled elleven with the numeral 11 subliminally tucked inside of it. But alas, it was not. Surely a missed opportunity, but probably nothing more than an oversight.

Other words just seem outright sinister. Take lisp for example. It is a four-letter, one-syllable word that should be a cinch to pronounce. That is, of course, unless you suffer from the speech impediment known as a lisp, in which case it is pricelessly the type of word you would have trouble pronouncing.

There’s also grammar and misspell, which, ironically, are two of the most commonly misspelled words in the English language. And do you know what having a fear of long words is called? If you guessed all 35-letters and 15-syllables of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, then you’d be correct.

In other words…

Words are like birds. There are big ones and little ones. There are loud ones and quiet ones. Some you see every day, and others you will never encounter in your entire life. Some are plain, but others have lovely plumage. You might even say some have a sort of woody quality about them. Others are more dreadful, tinny sort of things. Wait, wait, wait. That’s not birds, that’s Pythons.

What I’m trying to say is that it can be amusing to think about individual words and why you love or hate them. I suggest you try it sometime. You might find out that you have no reasons at all and that this silly minutiae does nothing except make your head spin. But on the other hand, you could discover that you’re just like me: a veritable “word nerd.”

Well, there actually is a word for that. It’s logophile. And, truth be told, I have no opinion about it one way or the other.

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