Saturday, September 1, 2012

them there's highfalutin words

I lean toward reading (and writing) literary fiction and creative non-fiction so it's no wonder I occasionally come across words that are new or unfamiliar to me. Highfalutin words. Some I recognize even though I can't define them. Some I don't recall ever having heard.

This can be maddening to some people. They resent the interruption inherent in dragging out the dictionary and looking up the meaning of some elusive word that they will probably never use in their own writing. If they can't cull the meaning from the context of the sentence, they just skip it.

But I was trained differently. When I came across an unfamiliar word as a child, I would simply ask my mother (who knew everything!), "Mom, what does this word mean?" And her response was always, inevitably, unfailingly the same: "Go look it up." Go haul that heavy red tome of a dictionary off the shelf, and look it up. And then, some time later on, she would ask me for the definition...just to be certain I had done it.

That same Webster's New World Dictionary--copyright 1951, frayed around the edges--still sits on my bookshelf today. An updated version sits next to my laptop.

Nowadays, when I come across a need-to-know word, I circle it in the text or jot it down...and then I look it up. This week's list comes compliments of Richard Rhodes (who wrote The Making of the Atomic Bomb), Ann Patchett (author of Bel Canto, Run, Truth and Beauty, and State of Wonder),
Anna Qunidlen (Rise and Shine, One True Thing), Ann Lamott (All New People, Plan B, Bird by Bird), and Kristen Tippett (Einstein's God).

So, students, here is your vocabulary list for the week:

--concatenate: to connect in a series or chain, to arrange (strings of characters) into a chained list

--contrapunctally: in music, using counterpoint--combining two or more melodic lines so that they form a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality;  using a contrasting but parallel theme or element

--inchoate: in an initial or early stage; incipient

--infelicitous: inappropriate or ill-chosen

--invidious: tending to rouse ill will, animosity, or resentment

--jeremiad: a literary work or speech expressing a bitter lament, or a prophecy of doom

--mellifluous: repetition flowing with sweetness or honey; smooth and sweet

--miasma: a noxious or poisonous atmosphere or influence

--peripeteia: a sudden turn of events or reversal of circumstances

--prosody: the study of the metrical structure of verse

--rictus: a gaping grimace

--rube: an unsophisticated country fellow
How'd you do? Give yourself extra credit if you have ever used any of these words in a sentence.
"One ought, every day at least,
to hear a little song,
read a good poem,
see a fine picture,
and, if it were possible,
to speak a few reasonable words."
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe--
How do you treat highfalutin words? 


  1. I was familiar with five of them and have used at least two of them in a sentence.
    How do I treat highfalutin words? Find out what they mean of course. I may never use them but I least I'll know what they mean.

  2. Hmmm, Delores and I must have gone to the same school. I was also familiar with five words, and have used two in conversation. My favorite new word on your list is jeremiad. What a wonderful word! (But I wonder why it isn't "jobian"?)And, I'm a looker-upper, too. No matter if it's a word or a concept, if I'm not familiar with it, I do research.

  3. I'm also jealous of the academics who research the derivation of words, the history itself can be so curious.

  4. I feel pretty good. I knew the meaning of six of the words and have actually used three of them. I love learning new words.

  5. hmmm i didn't know enough of these :)

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