Tuesday, June 15, 2010

For the Love of Words

I've been away on vacation, but I'm back now, and here is column that was first published in "Outlook." More reviews coming up next.

“Musings” for May 27, 2010

For the Love of Words

I wonder if everyone has a favorite word, or if it’s just weird people like me -- people that others call names like egghead, verbophile, poet. I’ve always had certain words that I’ve found fascinating, although which ones they are have changed over time. My mother tells me that when I was quite young, I would rhyme tirelessly, starting with a single word and then creating as many rhymes as I could, only stopping when I ran out of possibilities or got in trouble for some stumbled upon obscenity: buck, chuck, cluck, duck . . . you get the idea.

I remember falling in love in 1st grade with a girl named Zebra. Not that she wasn’t beautiful in a 1st grade sort of way, but it was her name that really endeared her to me. I mean, how could anyone resist the opportunity to say, “This is my girlfriend, Zebra”? The same thing happened in 3rd grade when I met Autumn, and the year after that with Dawn. I’m not sure I remember any of their faces, but I certainly recall their names and the romantic associations inspired by them.

At some point hormones properly took over the role of motivation in regards to opposite gender attraction, but the appeal of words never went away. I recall in high school creating a virtual book of lists of fascinating words. I had words for different manias and phobias; my favorite was arachibutyrophobia, the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of one’s mouth. I had palindromes, words that read the same forward and backward: mom, dad, kayak, madam, level, rotator, and my favorite, deified. I had what I called “echo words,” words that almost seem to rhyme with themselves: hubbub, chitchat, abracadabra. And I had hundreds of other lists of interesting (at least to me) words.

Once I discovered how much I enjoyed poetry, my favorite words changed to those related to poetry in one way or another. Like a lot of readers of Edgar Allen Poe, I loved the sound of “tintinnabulation.” And I loved the adjective used to describe the effect of a word like tintinnabulation that sounds like its meaning: onomatopoetic. And I loved the world’s best word for hangman, the only 6-letter word I know of without what most of us think of as a vowel: “rhythm.”

And as I continued to discover new words, for reasons I probably can’t understand or explain very well, three of them seemed to linger as my longterm favorite words: crepuscular, the epitome of “betweenness,” a concept I find very useful; pulchritude, a word that sounds nothing like what it means, beauty; and defenestration, the act of throwing something out a window (I just love that we have a word for that). It was one of my many pointless goals to use each of these words in a poem, and over time, I did. “Crepuscular” is the title of a poem about avoiding labeling; “defenestration” is used in a poem about the Holocaust; and “pulchritude” is used in a poem about the damaged offspring of emotionally abusive parenting.

And recently, I managed something I had never even thought to attempt. I used all three words in the same poem. The poem is called “Resume,” and here are a few key lines:

Myself the writer unfolds himself
in public, empties his pockets on the page,
worries about words that don’t get used
enough, crepuscular, pulchritude, defenestration.

I hope everyone has a favorite word, or if not, gets one, and uses it often. It’s just another way to engage with the world, to make it more the way you want it to be, perhaps to make it more pulchritudinous.


  1. Did you really mean "engendered?" I think I'd have said "endeared."

  2. Thanks, Joan. I really meant "engendered my feelings towards her," but I like your simpler revision, so I'm changing it to that.

  3. Terrific article Scott! I used crepuscular in a poem once and it made me so happy ;) I miss making those lists. Mine was of names for characters because I wanted a different name myself.