In his Foreword to Robert Hartwell Fiske’s The Best Words (ISBN 978-193333882-8, $14.94), Richard Lederer reminds us of Mark Twain’s much-quoted declaration: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
We live in an ocean of words. In addition to our everyday human speech, we listen to the radio, watch television, read books, play with Facebook, write emails and letters. Advertisements both heard and read are ubiquitous. Most of us throw out words with the casual disregard of a man emptying his pockets of loose change.
Yet our diction – our choice of words – often matters more than we realize. The right word can strengthen a friendship, console the sorrowful, inspire the discouraged, give pause to the smug and the self-satisfied. Some of Twain‘s “lightning“ words have even moved the hearts of millions and changed the course of our history: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” “I have a dream,” “an evil empire.” The wrong word can break a business deal, a love affair, a marriage. Who has not regretted a word carelessly spoken, a reckless phrase emailed to an acquaintance, a heedless comment whose painful consequences come back to haunt us?
Our words matter.
Which brings us back to The Best Words. Robert Fiske has spent a good part of his life reminding all who would listen to him of the importance of writing and words. He is the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Disagreeable English and The Dimwit’s Dictionary, and the editor of the Vocabula Review, an online journal devoted to fine writing and the usage and peculiarities of the English language. He is a man who loves the play and scope of language.
In this most recent book Fiske collects more than 200 of what another reviewer calls “superlative words.” Chosen both from lists of favorite words sent in by Vocabula readers and by Fiske himself, these words truly are superlative because they are infrequently used yet eminently suitable for conversation and writing. Unlike some collections which offer sesquipedalian entertainment for its own sake – Peter Bowler’s wit in The Superior Person’s Book of Words series leaves readers laughing, but few of us will use words like mammiferous (having breasts) or lilaceous (having to do with slugs) – Fiske and his Vocabula crew have here collected a kit of serviceable tools. Employing his book, we can replace the well-worn enthusiasm with ebullient, sluggish with phlegmatic, ordinary with quotidian. Even the more exotic words found in these pages – hypergelast (one who laughs excessively), quincunx (an arrangement of five objects), coprolalia (the uncontrolled or obsessive use of obscene language) to name but three – seem selected because no other word will do in their place.
Some of Fiske’s entries may also serve as a first-line of defense against suspicion or intrusion. For instance, most of us recognize a misogynist as one who hates women, but it is splendid to learn its opposite, philogynist. This is a most useful word for a man at the beach in the company of a significant other. When she asks, “Must you look at every woman in a bikini?” he has only to reply, “It’s my phylogeny acting up again, dear. I’m not sure there’s a cure.”
The Best Words follows a simple design which benefits all readers. In newspaper-width columns, the reader comes first to the word, then a phonetic guide to its pronunciation, a definition or two, and examples of its usage by noted authors. Included in the back are six quizzes. This is a splendid book for students, particularly those soon to take an SAT, teachers, writers, and all lovers of the English language.
Many books deserve a second look, but few will provide the entertainment and even the wisdom of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Smith, who also wrote The One Hundred and One Dalmations, here drops us into the English countryside of the 1930s, where we enter the lives of the Mortmain family: Cassandra, the 17-year-old narrator and diarist, her beautiful older sister Rose, her step-mother, the exotic and loving Topaz, and her father, James Mortmain, a brilliant one-novel author suffering from more than a decade of writer’s block. All four scrape by in a falling-down castle leased to them.
Enter two young American men who have just inherited the castle and the nearby manor house. As the American become acquainted with English ways and with the Mortmains themselves, and as romance and love overtake all the characters, Cassandra records their adventures with high humor and intelligence. Cassandra is the perfect narrator here, innocent enough to still find amazement in the actions and words of others, literate enough to think of Shakespeare on a May afternoon, and with enough dry wit to give any reader laughter and pleasure. Through Cassandra Smith gives us a look into an England that may well be disappearing and into an English spirit that will, it should be hoped, endure forever.
If you know a reader among this year’s high school graduates, particularly a young woman, I Capture the Castle is one book whose wisdom and story should capture their attention.