Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Right Words

I love words. I love the feel of them in my mouth, the sound of them falling on my ear, the look of them as they appear on the page. When I can’t sleep, instead of counting sheep, I count words I particularly love. My list always includes alacrity (ah-LAK-ri-tee), meaning: 1. cheerful willingness; eagerness. 2. speed or quickness; celerity. The sound of the word reflects its meaning. It just spills out of my mouth, leaving a smile behind. Another favorite is reverie (REV-ah-ree), meaning: 1. a state of abstracted musing; daydreaming. 2. a daydream. This one always reminds me of an Emily Dickinson poem:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Yet another favorite is halcyon (HAL-see-on), meaning: 1. calm and peaceful; tranquil. 2. prosperous; golden. Doesn’t the phrase “halcyon days” seem more evocative than “golden days”? Plus, “halcyon” brings to my mind a stanza from a favorite Mary Chapin Carpenter song “Jubilee”:

'Cause the people who love you are waiting,
And they'll wait just as long as need be.
When we look back and say those were halcyon days,
We're talking 'bout jubilee.
Many of my favorite words are uncommon words, but others are commonly used words like “love,” “grace,” and “tranquility.” I find it interesting that all those words appear on a list of the seventy most beautiful words in the English language according to a poll conducted several years ago by the British Council. I do admit to being puzzled that “banana,” “hiccup,” and “gum” also appear on the list. They are evidence, I suppose, that there truly is no accounting for taste. For the most part, I’m much more in tune with Robert Beard’s “The 100 Most Beautiful Words in the English Language.” I wholeheartedly concur with his choice of “dalliance,” “efflorescence,” and “gambol,” but I fear “quintessential” has become overused and “woebegone”—despite the spelling difference--too closely linked to Garrison Keillor.

It should come as no surprise that the misuse of words affects me like the sound of fingernails scratching across a chalkboard. I’m still groaning about a reference in something I read online recently to “Charles, the Prince of Whales.” Back in September of last year Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published a small book by the editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries entitled 100 Words Almost Everyone Mixes Up or Mangles. The list includes homonyms, outright errors, and pairs that are similar in meaning, yet carry subtle, significant differences.

Do we know the differences in these pairs?

baleful and baneful

faze and phase

historic and historical

tenant and tenet

Should we write “slight of hand” or “sleight of hand”?

I think social media exchanges make us all mixers and manglers at times.

One of Mark Twain’s most often repeated bits of wisdom is “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” As readers and writers, we appreciate that both lightning and lightning bugs can be important. We just have to know the difference.

What are your favorite words? Are there confusing pairs that you have to check before using? Are there frequently misused words that make you cringe?


TerriOsburn said...

This blog just reminded me why I'll never be a writer of your caliber. I love all these beautiful words and I'm sure I mangle things often. In fact, I used a completely wrong word in my GH entry and realized it only after I'd sent it off. It's bothered me ever since!

One mangling that bothers me is "..for all intensive purposes." And I do love the word "serendipity". I even love what it means.

Gannon Carr said...

Terri, I was going to say "serendipity", too. Love that word.

Janga, I agree with Terri. Your command of language and the beautiful way you write is a gift.

PJ said...

Beautifully written, Janga! I love words, for the very reasons you have stated.

Like Terri and Gannon, "serendipity" is a word that always makes me smile while your "tranquility" brings a sense of peace and serenity. There's another word I love: "serenity."

A couple "nails on the chalkboard" word mix-ups for me are "irregardless" instead of "regardless" and "loose" instead of "lose." That last one is probably more of a misspelling than usage of the wrong word but I hear the screeches just the same. ;-)

Janga said...

Terri, we all have different strengths. I think my attention to words probably stems from my work as a poet. And I think we all use a wrong word at times. I've been horrified to find to/too/two errors in some of my online posts. It's not that I don't know the difference; it's that my thoughts move faster than do my fingers on the keyboard, and I don't always take time to proof posts.

Janga said...

Thanks, Gannon.

I agree with you and Terri that "serendipity" is a wonderful word. I love "epiphany" too.

Janga said...

Ah, PJ, "serenity" is lovely. It's a word I associate with color--shades of blue from pale to indigo.

Yes to the "loose/lose" irritant. "Your/you're" is another one that makes me wince, and then there's "lie/lay," a confusion that leads to some astonishing sentences.

Anonymous said...

I agree with PJ on loose/lose. That kills me every time. One of my favorite words is "crisp". I also like "rust" and "ficus." One hilarious typo made me use "ficus" instead of "focus" and I didn't live that one down for a very long time! LOL This post reminds me of the Taylor Mali skit: The Impotence of Proofreading

irisheyes said...

I remember you posting about this before Janga and I had a word that I used and I can't for the life of me recall what it was. I do have certain words though that I love and am so excited when I can use them and actually sound like I know what I'm talking about and not like Cliff Claven from Cheers. One of those words is "auspicious". I love what it means (favored by fortune; prosperous; fortunate) and the way it sounds.

I totally agree with everyone's assessment of your writing style. There are times that I would compare reading your written word to listening to a favorite song. It all flows together so beautifully.

irisheyes said...

I forgot my nails on the chalkboard mistakes. Mine are your and you're; and to, two, and too. I have to confess to the lie/lay one - I have to learn the meanings of those over and over again. I know I muck up "it's" and "its" a lot also. For some reason some of my English lessons stuck like glue and others just didn't. LOL

I know what you mean about typos on blog posts. I posted something a week or two ago and typed "right" instead of "write". I caught it before I posted but sometimes I just make glaringly stupid mistakes cause my fingers are faster than my brain!

My husband, who is fairly intelligent (with a Masters Degree in Information Technology), has absolutely no respect for the English Language. And it INFURIATES me! He's gotten better over the years, but I swear I could hit him over the head with a dictionary when I read some of his e-mails. And his personality is such that he will purposely make mistakes he knows gets me mad!

Keira Soleore said...
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Keira Soleore said...

Janga, a great blog as usual! Yes, love of words.

I've noticed that I like sound words a lot--words that represent a sound and themselves make the sound. Similarly, visual painting words and words that sound like their meaning.

'Halcyon' is too similar to 'cyclone' in my head and so I see the opposite of its meaning every time I see the word and have to mentally stop and correct.

Here are more pairs to add to your list: What is the difference between these two:
- fount and font (font of knowledge)
- champing and chomping (champing at the bit)
- foreword and forward (foreword to a book)

My daughter's faves include: discombobulated, bustling, aeronautical, ... (the longer and more complicated the better).

quantum said...


My Grand doesn't sound like Mary Poppins and she can't sing it properly yet, but she loves to try!

She also likes
abracadabra kalamazoo
especially when my rabbit doll doesn't come out of the hat. LOL

I haven't really thought about word sounds before, though I do like it when they roll of the tongue.
luscious,loquacious,lascivious ......

No I don't have a favorite.

I guess my inner poet must have died.

All the posts are fascinating though!

I do admire real poets Janga
and I do sometimes try to understand them.

Like all artists, they can express emotions and feelings in ways that are not accessible to science....I really find that fascinating! *smile*

Beth said...

Twitterpated is one of my favorite words. It is from the Disney movie Bambi and I use it all the time to describe people who are all a flutter about one thing or another. Another favorite is pandelirium (a combination of pandemonium and delirium) This a made up word by the comedian Jeff Foxworthy. It can be a perfect word to describe certain situations.

I can't for the life of me keep affect and effect straight. No matter how often I look this up I still get it wrong.

Janga said...

Oh, "crisp" is a great one, Dena. It's another of those words with sound reflecting meaning. And I loved the video. Thanks for sharing. I'm sure some of my students would find "English torturer" an apt appelation. :-)

Janga said...

What a lovely compliment, Irish! Thank you.

The lie/lay confusion is a common one. I've probably shared this example of the lie/lay confusion before, but it's my favorite. One of my freshman comp students once wrote, "My father can lay aroused on the beach for hours." One colleague with whom I shared the sentence said, "Be sure to get his phone number."

Janga said...

Thanks, Keira.

Oh, "discombobulated" is marvelous. I love talking with children about their favorite words, and even quite young ones have words they love. I can remember when the #2 grand was about two and loved "ridiculous." He used it at every opportunity, only it came out as "ri-dik-u-us." He would say it and then double over with laughter.

Janga said...

Q, our grands love
"supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" too. The six-year-old loves to type it in a large font and print it out.

And I think poets and scientists have more in common than we sometimes think. There's creativity and discovery, of course, but also both use metaphors for similar purposes. Certainly, science has served to inspire many poems. There's Paul Board's "Benzine" that borrows from William Blake's "The Tyger":

"Benzene! Benzene! Burning bright
Belching engines day and night.
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame Kekulé's symmetry?


Janga said...

"Pandelerium" is new to me, Beth. How marvelous! I love portmanteau words. Celebrilite to describe the Paris Hiltons is one I like a lot, and "chortle," one of Lewis Carroll's creation is another of the words I love.

The affect/effect confusion is one most of my students struggled with. "Accept/except" was another I marked on many papers.

quantum said...

Janga, Paul Board is an organic chemist. He would say that wouldn't he! *grin*

But I know that science truly inspires poetry when Emily Dickinson says:

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.


Janga said...

OK, Q, you caught me out. Board was not the best example, except he does prove a scientist can know poetry and write poems. But one of the most celebrated American poets of the 20th century, William Carlos Williams, was a practicing physician, and Dr. John Stone, a beloved poet in my home state, was a professor of medicine at Emory University. Gerard Manley Hopkins was not a scientist, but his work is filled with his interest in--and concerns about--the science of his day. I'm sure treatises have been written on the subject. I know science and literature courses are common. I maintain my point is valid. :)

quantum said...

I have no doubt that you are right Janga .... Let me bask in the pleasure of catching you out just once. *smile*

I think that scientists and poets do share an admiration and love for the beauty and wonder of natural phenomena.Its the methods used to understand nature that differ.

Also before the 20th century it was possible for an educated person to have fairly detailed knowledge of both arts and science. So a person excelling at poetry could in principle maintain an active interest in science.

As an example I rather like Rudyard Kipling and his poem 'An Astrologer's Song'

To the Heavens above us
O look and behold
The Planets that love us
All harnessed in gold!
What chariots, what horses
Against us shall bide
While the Stars in their courses
Do fight on our side?

I haven't yet seen a poem that touched the heart of modern physics, perhaps expressing the beauty of 'the eight fold way' of elementary particles, or the mystical power of the Schrödinger equation.

But then, I haven't looked very hard!

Janga said...
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Janga said...

Q, for an example of a poem that uses science in unexpected ways, check out "Anomalies of Water" by Bin Ramke.

MsHellion said...

I love reading Eloisa's books because her vocabulary (like yours) is so much better than mine and it's just like poetry to read her stuff. I read so many words I've forgotten--and that I think are beautiful. (In fact I've forgotten them again so I can't list any--but read any Eloisa book and you're sure to find several.)

Its and It's are probably my biggest pet peeves. Mainly because it would be so easy to correct if people would stop and think when writing it. Just say "it is" when you're typing it out, if you can't say "it is" in its place without the sentence making sense, then you need to use the other word. I'm not sure I explained that right; but it's how I remember it.

I do love the words that J.K. Rowling has brought to us. Muggle being the obvious one to remember. But Dementor and Apparate are also handy...

MsHellion said...

The affect/effect confusion is one most of my students struggled with. "Accept/except" was another I marked on many papers.

Admittedly I have problems with this too.

But I have several grammar problems: fragments and split infinitives being the most prominent that I notice of my own stuff. I'm sure others can point out a hundred others I do. *LOL*

Janga said...

Hellie, your explanations sounds remarkably like what I told my students. It was part of my "All errors are not equal" lecture. :)

Of course, I agree with you about Rowling. She's given us some wondrful words. My favorite is pensieve. I love the wordplay.

One thing that helps with the affect/effect and accept/except distinction is to remember parts of speech. "Affect" is nearly always a verb. Very rarely is it used as a noun, usually only by psychologists. "Effect" can be a verb meaning "to bring about," but that use is far less common than its use as a noun. Grammar Girl offers a useful mnemonic: "The arrows affected Aardvark. The effect was eye-popping."

A similar distinction applies to accept/except. "Accept" is a verb; "except" most commonly is a peposition (Everyone except me has completed her manuscript)or a conjuction (He never calls me except when he has exhausted all other possibilities). Less commonly, "except" can be a verb meaning "to exclude": Since the dean accepted your excuse, I am reluctantly excepting you from the attendance requirement.

End of lecture! :)

quantum said...

Janga, thanks for that link to Bin Ramke

I remember once writing an essay for my school English master entitled 'The wonder of H2O'.
It was a masterpiece (IMO!) but he complained that I should have focused more on the aesthetic qualities.
Reading Ramke, I can see what he meant.

Too late now though! *grin*

Masaru Emotu in his books 'The message from Water' has some fascinating observations with photographic support.

Water is indeed an amazing substance. Beautiful in the rainbow, musical in the stream,threatening in the storm, powerful in the glacier....

And we would not be here without it! :D