Member preview

Words Matter — These Are My Favourites

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

Anyone who has spent any length of time will me will have inevitably heard my refrain — “words mean things.”

You’d be surprised how often it comes up — as a response to the hand-waving “same difference” reaction to a confusing word choice, in rebuttal to marketing speak that tries to be clever and misses the linguistic mark, and in my personal refusal to accept that ‘literally’ can apparently sometimes mean ‘figuratively’.

I’m not a prescriptivist as such — language evolves, that’s part of its depth, richness, and beauty. But I suppose we must all draw our lines somewhere, and ‘literally’ is where I have figuratively drawn mine.

But this piece isn’t about decrying the ways in which we mould language to our whims. As ideas evolve, so must the words we use to express them. I have been described (often by myself) as ‘semantically pedantic’ — say it out loud, it’s wonderful — but I am generally willing to roll with the linguistic punches.

No, this is instead a love letter to the English language and my favourite words contained therein.

We may not have the reputation for combining words in the same way as the German language, with constructions like “kummerspeck” — literally ‘grief bacon’, referring to the excess weight gained through emotional overeating— and “backpfeifengesicht” — a truly spectacular word meaning ‘a face in need of a slap’.

But we, too, have wonderfully evocative words. Here are some of my favourites:

Sesquipedalian

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

I think this is my favourite word of all. It has two meanings — firstly, when used as a descriptor of a word, it means polysyllabic or long. Its additional meaning is “characterised by long words, long-winded, given to using long words”.

I love that there is a word for using long words. I love that the word itself fits its own descriptor. But most of all, I love that, in loving it, I too am contained within its meaning. There’s something cyclical about the whole thing that really appeals to me.

Lethologica

Though it’s not the opposite of sesquipedalian, there is something opposite about lethologica. It refers to ‘the inability to remember a word’. The fact that there’s a word that means not remembering a word is beautiful. And it’s one of those concepts we celebrate other languages for coining, so I think we should shout out to English for coming up with this one.

It’s not the medicalised terms of ‘dysnomia’ or ‘aphasia’, as useful as they are, it’s far more lyrical than that. It sounds important, yet it represents a petty annoyance. That irritating ‘tip of the tongue’ feeling that may or may not be resolved by determinedly thinking about something else.

Funnily enough, no matter how many other words float away from the tip of my tongue, I’ve never once forgotten lethologica.

Petrichor

Photo by Toby Wong on Unsplash

How often do you hear people refer to the smell of rain after a dry spell? Or take a deep breath yourself when the glistening ground divests itself of dust and emits a new freshness? There’s something lovely about that scent, and just as lovely is the fact that there is a word to describe it. Petrichor — “the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil”.

Its origins are delightful — a combination of ‘petra’ meaning stone, and ‘ichor’, the fluid that flowed through the veins of mythological Greek Gods.

Natiform

“Resembles or has the form of buttocks”. No longer will you need to describe something as ‘looking like a butt’ — there’s a word just for that very purpose.

I found this one a long time ago, running through the words in the dictionary beginning ‘NAT’. I can’t quite recall why, perhaps I was hoping to find an entry for my own name (Latin, meaning Christmas Day, incidentally). Instead, I found buttocks. Or, perhaps, not buttocks but an abundance of things needing to be described based on their resemblance to buttocks. Of course, in the moment, I couldn’t think of a single thing, other than perhaps buttocks themselves, that would be described as natiform.

Defenestration

Photo by Will Swann on Unsplash

While it doesn’t come up in conversation often, I find I do experience a very real sense of satisfaction when I’m able to use it.

Defenestration — the act of throwing someone out of a window. It’s one of those words where I just enjoy the fact that exists. And the fact that it’s so specific to throwing a person out of a window, rather than any object, animate or not.

The word originated from two incidents that took place in Prague — the first in 1419 and the second in 1618, times when apparently it became necessary to have a word for throwing people out of windows. If you read the wikipedia entry for this word, you’ll find a rich history of defenestration, and a surprising number of notable examples.

Superlative

I love the word superlative — ‘of the highest quality or degree’ — because it feels like the natural progression of positivity.

Super. Superb. Superlative.

Great. Better. Best

In being there at the top of the list, it exemplifies itself (this may be a bit of a theme when it comes to my favourite words). It is the highest degree on the ‘similar-sounding super words’ spectrum.

Whether or not these words are linguistically linked in any way is irrelevant to the way it just fits together so neatly for me. There’s a symmetry that I adore.

Mondegreen

Photo by Adrian Korte on Unsplash

You know when you mishear a song lyric? Did you know there’s a word for that exact situation? Mondegreen was coined in the 1950s, when an American writer described how she misheard the lyrics of Scottish ballad ‘The Bonny Earl of Murray’ as a child.

Instead of “they slayed the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green,” she heard “they slayed the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen.”

The name stuck, and a mondegreen now refers to misheard lyrics and popular phrases. My personal favourite comes from the song “We built this city”. Instead of building it on rock and roll, listen to it again and I guarantee (now that you’ve read this sentence) that you’ll hear ‘we built this city on the wrong damn road.’ In fact, so insidious are mondegreens, that you may find yourself unable to hear the original lyrics for a considerable time afterwards.

Contrafibularities

Ok, so this isn’t actually a real word. It sounds like it should be, though, doesn’t it?

It comes from an episode of Blackadder — an old family favourite. Blackadder meets Dr. Samuel Johnson during his creation of the dictionary. Hearing Johnson laud himself for completing a ten-year mission to document every word in the English language, Blackadder extends his “enthusiastic contrafibularities”.

Clearly, the meaning he implies is a level of congratulation, perhaps even felicitations. But if we break the word down we can see that it leads us down a different path. ‘Contra’ generally means ‘against’, while the fibula is a bone in the leg. I’ve no doubt that the exceptionally clever writers designed a word that, etymologically at least, implies ‘pulling your leg’.

Image: screen capture from BBC recording
Like what you read? Give Natalie Howells a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.