Friday, March 19, 2010

Pay It Extra

      I love words.  All shapes. All sizes. All colors.
      I was about to say "all combos"--but there are word combinations that clang in my head like the Toonerville Trolley when I read them mashed together.
      But I do love portmanteau words, a phrase coined by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass
 

      Here's Humpty, explaining to Alice the meaning of  slithy toves in Jabberwocky:
     "Well, 'slithy' means 'lithe and slimy.' 'Lithe' is the same as 'active.' You see it's like a portmanteau--there are two meanings packed up into one word."
The eggman selected well: "When I use a word," Humpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."   
       And he took good care of the words he employed:  "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," he told Alice, "I always pay it extra."
       Some of you know that Michael Chabon is one one of my favorite authors. This is a man who pays it extra. His seemingly limitless vocabulary far exceeds the recommended daily requirement. His use of language is stunning. His word selection is unerring. Mark Twain ("The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug") would be so proud. Chabon generally does not send you running to the dictionary, though.  Usually you can tell what the word means from its context or the colorful visual he paints. Sometimes, he tells you flat out.
       This flies in the face of an old adage drilled into my brain by a newspaper editor I once had: "The old words are best. The old words when short are best of all." She attributed this quote to Winston Churchill who, let's face it, was no mean piker when it came to memorable words and phrases.
        But when I searched Google, I was unable to unearth that quote in that form. Most sites repeat the gist, more or less, as "Broadly speaking, the short words are best, and the old words best of all" or "Short words are best, and old words best of all." These two versions do not make much sense to me. After all, there are plenty of long and arcane "old" words.
       (See Chaucer, Geoffrey: "Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury." I don't know about you, but "begins" works a lot better for me. Oh, here's a good one: "To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondre londes"--which may or may not mean 'to distant shrines known in sundry lands'. What can I say? It's been awhile.)

        Yes, yes, I digress again.
        I do note in passing, though, that none of the sites offering up the alleged Churchill quote bother to attribute it to any particular speech or piece of writing, setting off all my cynical internal-reporter alarms. And still the thing is repeated again and again on every writing blog in the universe. Including this one.

         Short words are great. They have their purpose. So do long ones.

          I mean, sometimes "keen" or "howl" works best. But sometimes to get that whole Middle East flavor of prostrate, throat-warbling grief, you just really need "ululation."
          (I'm only semi-kidding.)

           It does help to know your audience and for whom you're writing, though. (Or, as our pal Winston might say about that last one: "This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put." Another of those oft-quoted but never sourced nuggets that can be found in myriad permutations all over the web. Ooooh. I like those jaw-breakers. But I like "many versions"  better, I think.)
   
          Still digressing, I know.

          This all came about because a tweet of readers, writers, editors and reviewers were tossing out some of their favorite $1,000 words on Twitter today.

           Which caused me to google "unusual words."
           Which I now share with you:    Unusual Words

           Here's a good one: Basorexia.  An overwhelming desire to neck or kiss.

           Oh, come on. 

           It was either that or recite "Jabberwocky."

11 comments:

Gina Rosavin said...

I still say we need a story based on that - a psychiatric comedy romance. Look! I just started a new genre! Throw in some gymnophoria (the sensation that someone is mentally undressing you), and talk about sexual tension! LOL!

Though I doubt we could use many of the words in what we write - unless our heroine is someone who puts a site like that together. Then she could keep throwing out words for effect - which could be really funny once she defines them!

I'm being silly, and procrastinating. The weather's too nice and distracting!

Terri said...

Um. Sooooooo not interested.

But don't say I never gave you anything:

Just for you:

http://bit.ly/9NUqeO

Gina Rosavin said...

HA! Love it! Be checking that out tonight!

JL Walters said...

Terri, Interesting comments on the use of strange words. Sometimes common words are used in odd ways. I remember mildred telling me my heroine couldn't swallow her anger.

Liz said...

you can never go wrong with kissing

teri - you might enjoy this site

www.savethewords.org

you can even adopt a word

Terri said...

Janet -- You've just given me a nightmare. As for me, I never swallow anger. I engulf everyone else in the conflagration instead. But I think heroines could.

Liz -- OMG -- That is the best site, evah. Which to choose? Which to choose?

PS: You're STILL not spelling my name rright.

Terri said...

I chose "temerate." To break a promise or a bond:

The lion and the lamb lay down together. And for many weeks after that, the lion considered temerating his vow.

Liz said...

whoopsie! but glad you like the site - I used to - when I was stumped for a blog post I'd go there and save a word then blog about it

Terri said...

OMFG. It's hysterical. I may never come out of there. "Pick me!" "Pick me!" "Over here!" "Yo!" "Hellooooo!
Adopted two more: Sceptiferous: "if the Queen is sceptiferous, why can't she order some new hats?"
And cynicocratical: pertaining to rule by cynics. "If a cynicocratical government comes into power, we'll lose funding for UFO research."
Hilarity ensues.

Chelle Cordero said...

What a fun post!

And thanks to this post I started hunting around the net for different uses of language and came up with the Online Slang Dictionary; and all this time I thought those words were just made up ;>

Chelle
http://ChelleCordero.com

Terri said...

Okay, so made me look. In case anyone else is looking, here is the website for that:

http://onlineslangdictionary.com/

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