I recently discovered that there are 250,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Apparently, there’s a disconnect: out of that quarter of a million, the average person might use four thousand—maybe less, perhaps more.
Can you imagine how frustrated the unused words must feel? Here they are, twiddling their letters and hoping to be noticed. But are they? Do they get put into cogent sentences or love letters or even political advertisements? Alas, they do not.
Quit joking around, you might well say at this point, but the sad truth is that we overuse certain words and ignore others that can be more exciting, more dramatic, or simply different. And, I have to admit that some words are more user friendly than others.
For sure I favor certain words simply because they are lovely. Tranquility is one such. It evokes peace and gentle quiet and offers a balm to the spirit. Translucent is another such, although this is more about image than about mood. In that same spirit, there are words like mellifluous and mellow, both using the soothing ‘l’ sounds that ripples so easily along the psyche.
In the tranquil dawn
Turtle dove coos mournfully…
Love, or loneliness?
Everybody, I suspect, has favorite words. Sometimes, they are fabrications, made-up words like Jabberwocky or frabjous or words that slide smoothly together as in moonglow. Others can raise eyebrows by the way they sound, as consider the lowly pismire. Eyebrows need to be raised, actually. Plots want action, they need conflict, they have to build up suspense. For these eventualities there are words like slithering which, though not exactly onomatopoeia, brings snaky things (and characters) to mind.
Sometimes I need to go further and convey pure evil and horror. At such times what would I do without malevolent which conjures up wickedness that is both primeval and deadly? And desolation! I once used the word in a novel and fell in love with it. It fills me with loneliness, despair and the dark night of the soul—wonderful stuff for any writer to work with!
On my list of favorites there are also words that evoke a particular sense, such as luscious which, especially in the summer, makes me drool for ripe peaches. Sense of hearing? There is raucous, followed closely by glissando and bombast. There are many words to evoke sight, of course, and one of my favorites is opalescent, invaluable when describing a dawn sky. For the sense of touch, rotund conveys weight nicely as well as ponderous and the nasty viscous. Smell is harder. Dank, or fetid, incense, grass or flowery describe my response to a particular scent, but somehow these do not do the job without further clarification. Grass has to be new mown or dry and gasping for rain; incense can be or cloying or rise in blue smoke; the flowery scent might be honeysuckle or frangipani; a dank and fetid wood may have overtones of fungi and dead leaves or be that ‘ghoul haunted woodland of Weir’ of Poe’s nightmares.
Verbs—I can hear them clamoring for attention, but I am ignoring their cacophony. There are just too many of these to count. I try to use the most energetic ones, the descriptive action words that badger or trundle or fracture, or… but there is really an overabundance of verbs.
At my most fanciful, I try to imagine a huge tree decked out with words instead of leaves. Pluck one (or so I imagine) and two more grow back in its place so that this verbal hydra always flourishes. There is never a shortfall. Actually not a bad thought, don’t you think?
Long summers ago,
I learned these few, simple words…
Then came the magic.