Have you ever said to someone, “I’m going to have to have words with that [wife, brother, son, daughter, cousin, or husband] of mine?” Usually that means we need to communicate something to that person, and most likely in a manner that will not always be pleasant. We use words to communicate. We communicate to those we love; those we despise; those we work with (sometimes loving and despising them) and often with strangers in passing. That is to say, we often talk with strangers we meet along the way as we go about our work.
For some of us who are not very good with words, i.e., not very articulate, there are books for us. I like the one by Peter Bowler, The Superior Person’s Book of Words. Of course there is a series of books on the Art of Verbal Defense, which concentrates on repartee, rather than words. But we also have Peterson’s Success with Words. And for those of us who aren’t superior persons and still wonder if we should lay, lie, or have lain the book down, you might have a look at the Barron’s English Verbs pocket book.
In the bookstores we are confronted with a storm of dictionaries and guides of slang, euphemisms, synonyms, rhyming words, crosswords, unconventional words, oxymorons, aphorisms, and a recently published Pop vocabulary dictionary, destined to be out of date by the time it is printed and distributed. Many of these now have their counterpart online on the Internet.
And then there is the word, “etc,” or as most folks say instead, “you know…” when you just can’t find the right words. Some people use curses for emphasis. The comedian, George Carlin had a routine about words we make up when we can’t think of or don’t know what to call something, like, thing-a-ma-gig or wingdings, or widgets. I wonder what we’d call ourselves if we weren’t given names when we were born.
I received a list of “Ponderables” via the Internet the other day; “Why do overlook and oversee mean opposite things?” “Why are a wise man and a wise guy opposites?”
Words have meanings; denotative, connotative, subjective, pejorative, and we use them to hurt, to humor, to laugh, to make memorable an occasion. Some words are taken out of context, some don’t make any sense in any content or context — some are just obfuscation; yes, a word to sound great but says very little. But if we need to know more about those words, we can look up information in the Dictionaries of Word Origins and Etymology or the New Book of Word Histories. We can also find further guidance from the series written by Richard Leaderer on word uses, puns, and phrases. We ask, “If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn’t it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, and dry cleaners depressed?”
Ed Newman of NBC spoke to one group in Boston, (I was there) about TV new reporting and how various reporters misuse our words; although his book on the subject, Strictly Speaking seems to be lost to today’s announcers. Think—”Terrible Tragedy.”
Now we even have printed word charts, tongue-in-cheek kind, that show us how to write grants by choosing a phrase made up of a word from each column, just so we can sound erudite. A recent article about setting up a new business, suggests one be flexible by writing this obfuscation into the plan. “…We’re doing infrastructure and data management services for the third generation of giga-speed need-based e-commerce…”
This reminds me of the time my colleagues and I were in training. Our subject was “Communications,” or how to deal with prison inmates verbally without giving out verbal abuse, such as the no-no, “Get out of my face you sleazy scum-bag!” We needed to learn how to choose our words so that we were directive, no nonsense, yet did not demean the person to whom we were giving direction. Thanks to our staff library nearby, our group found a wonderful replacement word in twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary. It still indicated low life, without value, but in only 13 letters. I can’t find it again, but the word magniloquent also comes to mind, meaning braggart, windbag, big mouth.
There is a relatively new book, Word Menu by Random House that I thought might help me put together my words better, or is it, “help me put my words better together.” That is, I thought it might be a good book to better help me in word-smithing. Word Menu does not treat words in a series of columns but rather the editors put words that are part of various fields of activity in what one might call a topical dictionary: Medical words; Musical words; Sales words; Carpentry words, and others. The copy indicates that it is an all-in-one dictionary, which merges the thesauri, glossaries, reverse dictionaries, and almanacs. Possibly this book would be excellent for someone seeking a job in an area about which he/she knew very little. Throw around enough of the jargon during the interview, and one could possibly be quite persuasive.
Sometimes we’re wordy. I wonder if the abbreviation dictionaries will ever have pronunciation guides, then perhaps we can shorten our wordiness. Sometimes we are speechless, but sometimes we say just the right thing at the right moment, and while we can talk about the event; the timing, the wording, the meaning are only a memory, and that wonderful moment will not return. So you say, “You had to have been there to see/hear the impact.” I actually had such a moment when my mother was grousing about living too long and not of any use to anyone. I responded almost instantly, “look at all the people you are paying to take care of you at 92. You are important to them.” She smiled, and said, “I guess I am.”
Finally the one nice thing about words is, even with all their confusion, you can give your word and you may also keep your word.
© 2023, By Paul T. Jackson