Archived Reading Room

Wonderful words


Like many of my fellow writers and readers, I am a sucker for word books. I love dictionaries — I own at least six of them, ranging from the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to my own personal favorite, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary — thesauri, grammar books, and books on word origins.


Recently three books came to my attention that should please any of my readers with similar interests. First is Do You Speak American? (ISBN 0-15-603288-0, $13) by Robert McNeil of PBS fame and William Cran, who has produced many documentaries for British and American television.

Here the authors take a long look at various influences on American English, ranging from the disappearing dialect of the Outer Banks to the Valley Girl speak that continues to determine the speech patterns of many, you know, teenagers, who, like, talk as if to, you know, fill every gap with, like, words.

McNeil and Cran devote a good deal of time to the accents of the South and to the speech of Black and Latino Americans. Included in their side trips into English as it is spoken in the South are reports on Cajun, Gullah, country music, and Texas cowboys.

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Like Cran and McNeil, who are serious in their approach to language but who flavor their subject with wit and a smile, Charles Harrington Elster in What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to your Peskiest Questions About Language (ISBN 0-15-603197-3, $14) brings a sense of play to his examination of English. There are, for example, questions about words and usage throughout the book:

Q. I’m a male nanny. Is there a word for that?

A. How about manny?

But seriously you could call yourself a pedagogue, a word now used as a fancy synonym for teacher but which descends from a Greek word for a slave charged with caring for the master’s children, feeding them, taking them to school, and so on.

Q. I once heard that there’s a word or maybe a phrase for a woman’s ability to forget the pain of childbirth. Do you now what it is?

A. It’s a phrase: parturient amnesia. (Parturient, pronounced pahr-CHOOR-ee-int, means pertaining to childbirth). Without this remarkable form of oblivion I suspect the human race would have become the human e-race, long before the advent of epidural anesthesia.

Unlike the MacNeil and Cran volume, What in the Word? may be picked up and read at random for pleasure and for knowledge.

Despite the slightly haughty tone of its title, Peter Meltzer’s The Thinker’s Thesaurus: Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words (ISBN 0-9729937-9-7) would be a fine addition to any writer’s library. In his introduction, Meltzer tells us that he had “an ambitious (some may even say foolhardy) goal: to create a new kind of thesaurus which is intended to be a genuine improvement over existing versions for the benefit of casual and serious writers alike who want to be able to use just the right word for a given occasion.”

He goes on to point out that most such books contain only ordinary synonyms and that most prefer one-word synonyms, which often don’t work well. “Maternal,” for example, in the sense of “maternal grandfather” would lead us to the word mother, but that’s a noun; the apt word would be matronymic (which my computer insists is a misspelling, though it does contain patronymic).

Because of his notes on usage and his selection of examples, Meltzer gives the reader a great deal of entertainment as well as instruction. In using the synonym “osculate” for the word “kiss,” for example, Meltzer quotes from an article in People magazine: “To judge from the kiss, they like wedded bliss. In fact Charles and Diana were osculating all over the British tabloids last week.”

In finding a word for “fool,” Meltzer revives “mooncalf.”

“Any mooncalf knows money is not equal to speech. If a man standing next to me has a million dollars to donate to a senator, I can yell as loudly as he can, but he’ll get a meeting to discuss his legislative needs a lot more quickly than will I.”

For many words, Meltzer gives several nuanced synonyms. For the adjective “bright,” for example, we find “effulgent” (as in shining...); “fulgurant” (as in lightning); “refulgent” (as in shining...); “coruscant” (as in emitting flashes of light); “eupeptic” (as in happy and cheerful); “lambent” (especially to talent, wit or ability); “lambent” (softly...); and “lucent” (as in radiant or glowing).

Although Meltzer is dismissive of other thesauri in his introduction, I do feel compelled to defend Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms. My own copy bears a copyright of 1984. My Merriam Webster edition has some of the weaknesses mentioned by Meltzer — it doesn’t even contain the word “kiss” — but for many words there are extensive entries distinguishing among different synonyms. When we turn to miscellaneous, for example, we find assorted, heterogeneous, motley, and promiscuous, all with definitions and examples of usage.

Nevertheless, The Thinker’s Thesaurus, as well as the other books reviewed above, should serve as staunch reminders of the wonders of the English language and how often we fail to get all that we can from that language. Like the proverbial grandmother behind the wheel of a Corvette, we have in the language of Shakespeare, Milton, and Faulkner a load of power that we are either too ignorant or too timid to use. The Thinker’s Thesaurus is a timely reminder of the power of our language.

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