I’m Making a List and Checking It Twice; Gonna Find Out Who’s Wayward and Respectable or Pleasant or Amiable or Courteous or Polite or Commendable or Charming or Genial or Pleasing

December 9, 2009

This is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word, indeed! It does for everything.
• Jane Austen (1817)
Northanger Abbey

I know I’ve mentioned my fondness for dictionaries, but I am even more fascinated by the thesaurus and not just because it sounds like some kind of small yet exceedingly vicious dinosaur. If the only thesaurus you’ve ever used is on your computer, you’re missing a treat! Just paging through an actual thesaurus with pages and cover and lots of tiny print offers a rich learning experience for anyone who ever has to write anything or open her or his mouth hoping to sound erudite (look it up).

Please ignore the snarky sarcasm offered by one who basks daily in the superiority of being a booklover. I cannot help myself. I am good—and I know it. But wait, perhaps not. As I look up good in my thesaurus so that I can offer you some more intellectual-sounding equivalent, I discover that I am probably instead goody-goody or smug, sanctimonious, self-righteous, and holier-than-thou (p.194). See how handy such a book can be?

I found my latest thesaurus—oh, yes, I have many since old ones offer fascinating glimpses into a world full of lost words—last night at the Goodwill. If you’re looking for one, this is a good place to start since those who are unaware of the limitations of their electronic friend will often pass these valuable books along to be thrifted. My find is The Oxford Thesaurus, American Edition, compiled by Laurence Urdang (1992). It contains, according to its compiler, approximately 650,000 words. I wish I knew all of them, but I do try to keep learning.

It’s been more than a week since I suggested finding five new words to add to your vocabulary. Did you? I don’t even have my crystal ball in front of me and I’m willing to bet you didn’t. Vocabulary improvement is something that sounds pretty good in the abstract, but often proves unworkable in reality. It’s prime territory for procrastination, something in which I have a certain amount of expertise.

Nonetheless, I am not called a hopeless optimist for nothing, so today I offer a few words for your consideration. I’ve taken them from 100 Words to Make You Sound Smart (Editors of American Heritage Dictionaries, Houghton Mifflin, 2006). How many of this sampling do you know? And how many are you comfortable pronouncing? The editors say  in the introduction that these words that are “extraordinarily effective in ordinary situations.“

epitome (n.) The best or most representative example of a class or type. (Pronunciation hint: this word has four syllables!)

finagle (v.) To obtain or achieve something by cleverness or deviousness especially by using words.

gregarious (adj.) Seeking and enjoing the ocmpany of others; sociable.

panacea (n.) A remedy for all diseases, evils, or difficulties; a cure-all.

perfunctory (adj.) Done routinely and with little interest or care.

accolade (n). An expression of approval.

zealous (adj.) Passionately devoted to a cause, ideal, or goal.

Don’t make me hunt you down and push words into your brain. It’s quite a painful process that involves several sharp pointy objects and quite a large quantity of rubber bands.

Seriously. Be good. Be nice. What five new words will you add to your vocabulary this week? I’m watching.

At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough,
grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction.
• Elizabeth Barrett Browning


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