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I’m becoming a collector of words.
It’s not a new affliction but one that has been within me for as long as I can recall. For much of my life I’ve treated the problem with steady doses of recognized pragmatism—meaning; what’s the use of employing obscure words if few understand them? If I ever yielded to the temptation of acting like a New York City literary artesian it most likely came of as being smug instead of entertaining, snotty instead of clever or, at worse, I was ignored because, “he’s just being Wilson again,” and everyone would walk off hoping to lose me in a crowd.
Sigh. It took me a while to understand that few shared my passion.
Aggravating the situation, I have a complicating aliment in that I’m easily given to collecting things:
- Gas station road maps (remember those?) when I was very young,
- Hand tools because that genetic phenotype is dominate in all the males of my family,
- Electrical components right after high school because this was how my ‘tool’ gene manifested itself with a bit of engineering training,
- Books of almost any topic because I suspect I was exposed to a congenital bibliophile at an early age (and this remains untreatable even today, warning me to stay out of any physical book stores or risk impoverishing myself and family not to mention burying our home with volumes I intend to read some day.)
- Wooden writing pens as an adult because, umm, what could be cooler than sanded, stained and oiled (and sometimes engraved) wood that you can both hold in your hand and actually use to sign the charge bill in slightly fancy brasseries,
- Fishing lures as I was learning to angle because there is something hypnotic about these things,
- Another round of maps when I discovered a simple subscription to National Geographic would result in luscious maps periodically showing up in your mailbox (simply intoxicating at a cellular level).
Anyway, after years of coping with my inclinations, I have decided that collectors like me are little more than hoarders with principals and that my own composite of attributes are simply inhered to my basic makeup and at best, I will manage to manage them into something fun and useful or at least tolerable.
These days I deliberately spend time reading things outside of my mostly blue-collar heritage where such language is rarely treasured. I do this because it entertains me even if it leaves me as coltish as some 12 year old girls are in their first gymnastics class. The graceful inclusion of such words in my speech and writing is a talent yet to mature, like a redolent loaf on the rise just beginning to smell better than ripening yeast. Even so, Iike a collector with new additions to his collection I keep at it because this is what passions do to us.
I’ve found it helpful to learn about and carefully use some devices that help both me and those exposed to my wordiness. For example, who does not love playing with onomatopoeia? To this day I could (if the building still stood) show you where I was standing when a peer computer tester at my first real job out of trade school asked me a question that I believe dealt with the storage of our lunches in the common refrigerator. My answer included using the word, ‘rancid’, which I had recently learned and used with a playful emphasis that sent my friend into hysterics over how well the word matched his reaction to something he had discovered attempting to become self-aware and had to dig past to get to his own fresh lunch bag. The rest of us were entertained for weeks as he went out of his way to incorporate ‘rancid’ into his daily conversation in ways that both stretched the real definition and quickly became as stale as the word itself was meant to describe. He actually got very good at saying ‘rannn-ssid’ in a way that was sure to enervate your appetite.
Today, the new headquarters for Apple Corporation stands on the site of where I got such mileage from ‘rancid’ and to this day I can’t use it without thinking about much fun we had with my friend’s insertion of it into places where only teenage boys should have found funny.
A lot of these words, don’t fit well in my milieu. My daily work requires me to explain things in ways that are very precise and (almost more important) easy to consume. My consumers don’t keep any of us around for our clever use of English. They don’t want to hit speed bumps of quick understanding of the details I’m charged with communicating.
This brings me to wondering; just how are these wonderful English artifacts to survive? Part of the charm of unusual words is how rare they are read but this same rarity most likely threatens their existence in our fast maturing world. Words survive only because they are used enough to merit recognition by the OED or other respected dictionary. Left unused, they might as be added to the respected but unused vocabulary of Esperanto because words dying for lack of use become poison on their way to the grave and serve only to make their user appear ancient and out of touch with modern English.
Already I find that if the word I want to play with is dangerously obscure, I try to bracket it with a phrase or two that clarifies the meaning because, unless they are willing to query their phone, “Okay Google, define suzerainty,” few will make the time to crack an actual dictionary to figure out what you said.
The following is a short exchange I had with one of my sister’s boyfriends who my cousin and I loved to torment.
“Hey Roger, you know how they say, ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’?”
“Yea. So what?”
“So, you must be invincible.”
We thought just saying this to him was funny, until he responded with; “Okay, what does ‘invincible’ mean? Is it good?”
My cousin and I were in high school at the time and we turned to look at each other before bursting out in hysterical, uncontrollable laughter and we still reprise this memory-gem whenever we’re together and want a good laugh.
When my sister finally explained to him what the word meant, oddly enough, he did not think it was funny.
Given how embarrassed he was, I think the merits of collecting words certainly include not appearing to be an idiot when a rare but still useful word appears for your reaction.
So, while our coffee is still hot, how do you decide between using an interesting and vivid but rarely used word in speaking or writing, and do you have any other tricks to help your reader understand?