Monday, April 09, 2012

Any word nerds out there?

Yes, I'm a word nerd. I love words. I always have. From the time I was old enough to read (and I started early...I got the complete Chronicles of Narnia for my birthday the year I turned six), I was amazed by words' ability to bridge the gap between people, to intoxicate, to create new worlds. I spent a lot of childhood and adolescence escaping into books--'escaping' in the most desperate, harried sense. The works of Roald Dahl made third grade survivable. Amy Tan sufficed for seventh grade. But it's not just whole works of fiction (or essays, or poetry) that I adore. The smaller bits--indeed, the smallest chunks, the individual words--delight as well. Most of the words that truly amaze are of necessity obscure, and what makes them special is some combination of how they look, how they sound and what they mean. Coming across a new word and incorporating it into my vocabulary gives me the same thrill I imagine other collectors get, sans the need for amassing stockpiles of butterfly carcasses or books of stamps. For instance, some of my all-time favorites:

Syzygy: Just look at it. All those y's. That sexy little z. The way it sizzles off the tongue. In Jungian psychoanalysis (which is where I first encountered it) it means a union of opposites; in astronomy, it's when three celestial bodies form a straight line.This is the word that gets pulled out in the last round of the spelling bee.

Annihilation: To me, this word just SOUNDS threatening, designed to be growled by aggressors and villains. This isn't just 'damaged,' or 'effed up.' Etymologically it's related to the Latin "nihil," nothing (as in Ovid's Omnia mutantur, nihil interit, or 'Everything changes, nothing perishes,' which is what I would get tattooed on my shoulderblade if someone held a gun to my head and forced me to get a tattoo--and probably paid for it, too, 'cause I'm not made of money). It means literally that: to be reduced to nothing, utterly undone. As if nothing had ever been there at all.

Foofaraw: This word sounds exactly like what it is, which is part of why I love it. It's also a new addition to my collection, added only a few weeks ago. What "gilding the lily" conveys in a phrase, "foofaraw" says in a word. Extra little foofy, unnecessary frills and contrivances. It makes me think of feathers, too, for some reason.

Susurrus: Speaking of words that sound like their definitions (with a little onomatopoeia to boot), isn't this a lovely little gem? Put a seashell to your ear and hear the gentle susurrus of the sea. Walk in the woods and hear the susurrus of the wind through the leaves overhead. This is one you just HAVE to say aloud. Once you do, you've got it: whispering, murmuring or rustling.

Of course, in the past few years--what with medical school and all--my vocabulary has exploded (but gotten kind of medical-term-heavy). Perhaps favorite medical terms will be a subject for another post...

1 comment:

E in Flats said...

I too am a word nerd. One of the things I mourned most after graduating college (and before going back to grad school) was my lack of access to the Oxford English Dictionary online. I could get lost in the OED. Anyway, I assume you've heard the 'Way with Words' podcast? If not, it's a must.