The word mostly sits there unpondered. But beneath it patiently tugs its historical baggage, all smudged with connotation and etymology and by roots of dead languages. The word is remarkable. The word is a minute palimpsest.
Whenever I ask my dad to proofread my essays, his Markup Word document comes back with a dense ladder of blue boxes, all variations of “John Gonzalez deleted the word autotelic” or “John Gonzalez replaced the word lacuna with gap.” I diligently heed the comma insertions and mend the split infinitives, but I keep the fancy words. My dad sighs in frustration. To him, good writing is practical; it communicates clearly and concisely.
But I love the words that puzzle and initially withhold, yet once Googled, snap the sentence into alignment the way the simple word couldn’t. Take the word susurrus, which I first came across in Charles Wright’s “The Southern Cross.” The word means “whispering, muttering, rustling.” All three synonyms in the definition have an onomatopoeic quality, but susurrus is particularly swaddled in its raspy ss sounds.
The word rustle evokes the clumsy jostling of leaves in a tree, but I imagine the susurration of leaves is finer, like a rain stick gently tipped.
The perfect word can be clear, but it must be lyrical. The perfect word shouldn’t worry about being recalcitrant to the languid reader’s gaze. Send her to the dictionary! The bon mot isn’t there to roll over and play dead. The word is alive, goddamn it! Tell me the word tipple doesn’t bubble effervescently on your tongue like a sip of champagne.
When I was reading “Lolita” a few years ago, I became overwhelmed by Nabokov’s luscious prose. I mean that hyperbolically, but also because I was reading an annotated edition, densely peppered with footnotes which even still couldn’t elucidate words like phocine (seal-like) and favonian (of a western wind). I started a list on my iPhone and it grew into the sprawling 15-page Word document I keep continuously open on my computer.
I write down the words that bind an abstract concept into a small bundle of syllables — a word like slatch, which means an interval of fair weather. When I added that word, it was July in Ann Arbor and amidst the thick, nagging heat I couldn’t remember what a slatch was. Now that the days are sharp and short, I pray in vain for slatches, but the delight of the word itself is almost enough.
There are words that linger on the list that I’ve never used: I’m never going to write down “Assignation with C. – 9 p.m.” on my calendar, because assignation is one of the un-sexiest words for an illicit affair.
Then there are words that I wish I used more, like paroxysm, which just by saying elicits the spontaneous, spluttering onset of emotion it describes. I love words so saturated with their meaning, they ooze on delivery.
It is funny that my dad is the most ardent crusader against my more self-indulgent vocabulary (restraint was used here to not substitute the word sybaritic), because he is the one who instilled my love of lexicon.
Almost every morning in fifth grade, we would hunch over the Word Jumble in the Union Tribune on the dining table. He knew the answers of course, but bit his tongue, letting me clench my teeth and scribble on the newspaper until it was time to go to school.
It was also around this time that he gave me his battered copy of “Animal Farm” and, shortly after, “1984.” I read them, absorbed probably nothing from them, but these inductive tomes were important. Over the years, I read and re-read them and by the time I was in junior high, I’d spent so much time in “1984” that Orwell’s lucid yet evocative prose felt mine as well.
Of course, Orwell detested the murky language of doublespeak, but only because it obstructed his quest for precision of word and freshness of imagery. Too often, the fancy word slackens the taut cord of a sentence, rather than yanking it tighter. Hence, my ever-growing word list remains perpetually perused, yet mostly unused.
But when the moment is right, I’m unafraid to use the fancy word. For every utilitarian Orwellian sentence, there is one by Nabokov, or, to return to my childhood, Snicket. Lemony Snicket, that is: the erudite, elusive author who penned my favorite series ever (sorry, Harry Potter), “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the sardonic post-modern-lit books tamped with literary references. Snicket taught me the words xenophobic (useful for a child of the Bush era) and ennui (perfect later for a teenager prone to overstatement), but more so, he illustrated how the fancy word could pirouette spryly in the sentence between form and function.
The fancy word is adroit but aware of its witty immoderation, the guest at the cocktail party well-practiced with nimble ripostes. And more than that, when Snicket said “I know that having a good vocabulary doesn’t guarantee that I’m a good person, but it does mean I’ve read a great deal. And in my experience, well-read people are less likely to be evil,” I smiled at the snark, but swallowed the message.
The fancy word pays homage to a literary history; it skirts the stage of celebrity and zeitgeist — the fancy word will not be Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year, it stubbornly protests the modern art of Internet speed-reading. The fancy word requests your attention and your intelligence, but it compensates generously for your time. It is the visible leaf in a long family tree of forgotten language and it asks you to sift through its branches. In a moment when beloved niche publications are being artlessly corporatized, raided for efficiency and use value before being jammed into a slick brand that slips off the mainstream tongue, the fancy word is a petite protest. It demands more from language and sentences and novels than easy consumption. It asks to be critically considered.