Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means

by Stephanie Black

(Today’s definitions are brought to you by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, which is an extremely handy resource. Not only does it provide definitions, which authors tend to need every now and then, but it will say words out loud for you, in case you’re unsure what those little apostrophes and upside-down e’s mean).

Some words sound exactly like what they are. I’m not talking about onomatopoeia ("1: the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as buzz, hiss) 2: the use of words whose sound suggests the sense"). I’m talking about when a word just sounds right. Take “gossamer”, for instance--"1: a film of cobwebs floating in air in calm clear weather 2: something light, delicate, or insubstantial." The definition fits the feel of the word, doesn’t it? “Gossamer” sounds wispy and filmy. Maybe it’s that double s in the middle. On the other side of the spectrum, take “acrid”--"1: sharp and harsh or unpleasantly pungent in taste or odor: irritating 2: deeply or violently bitter: acrimonious." The word just sounds harsh and bitter, like something burning the back of your throat.

But in my opinion, some words just don’t fit their meaning. Yesterday's M-W “Word of the Day” that landed in my e-mail inbox was “crepuscular.” Do you have any idea what it means? I didn’t. Go ahead and guess.

Okay, here’s the definition. "1: of, relating to, or resembling twilight: dim 2: active in the twilight." That’s what “crepuscular” means? What a pretty definition for a word that has such a bubonic plague ring to it. I mentioned the word to my sister. She didn’t know the definition either, but her knee-jerk response was, “That’s disgusting.” And then she said something about zombies. So it's not just me.

Another, not quite so medically gruesome, example is “pulchritude” which M-W defines as “physical comeliness.” Beauty? Hmm. (“Wow, dude, look at that pulchritudinous supermodel.”) Latin roots aside, pulchritude sounds like something possessed by the formidable Eulalie MacKecknie Shin, the mayor’s wife in the Music Man, as she swoops around town chewing out Marian the Librarian for advocating dirty books.

Maybe I should start the next kissing scene I write (yes, I do write them occasionally--I was working on one yesterday) with “Dave sat on the garden swing next to Jane, enjoying the crepuscular coolness after the heat of the day. He wanted to say something witty, but Jane's astounding pulchritude took his breath away." Kinda makes your pulse race, doesn't it? Maybe not. It sounds more like Jane punched him in the gut. Not that it will matter anyway, since that crepuscular sky is going to kill them both.

So are there any words with definitions that you find particularly jarring or particularly perfect?


At 3/11/2009 2:13 PM, Blogger ben said...

I actually knew crepuscular, thanks to weather channel trivia a few years ago about crepuscular rays, which are those "joseph smith vision" sunbeams that come through the clouds.

At 3/11/2009 2:21 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

This is my kind of post! I love funky words.

Back in high school I was big on using "xanthic" for almost everything. It sounded cool, but it just means yellow.

At 3/11/2009 2:31 PM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

You should have called me instead, as I know all about crepuscular--because bunnies are crepuscular creatures.

At 3/11/2009 3:49 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

Inconceivable! ;) I agree: pulchritude sounds too much like sepulcher

I used to like MW, but it got too overloaded with stuff. Nowadays, I prefer this:
Fast and simple.

Here's a couple off the top of my head:

tintinnabulation: n : the sound of a bell ringing;

succulent: adj : full of juice; "lush fruits";

sibilant: adj : produced by forcing air through a constricted passage (as `f'. `s', `z', or `th' (in both `thin' and `then'))

Don't pass up a chance to use this one: callipygean (not on definr, sadly) I'll let you look it up. =)

At 3/11/2009 4:15 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

I'll add my favorite wrong-sounding word: osculate (v. to touch with the lips, as a sign of passion or affection).

So, to continue your example:

Dave sat on the garden swing next to Jane, enjoying the crepuscular coolness after the heat of the day. He wanted to say something witty, but Jane's astounding pulchritude took his breath away.

"Jane, let's osculate."

At 3/11/2009 6:10 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Love it!

Recently one of my best friends gave me "The Superior Person's Second Book of Weird and Wondrous Words." I think she was ridiculing me, but I don't care. It's a fantastic book -- especially for a eremophilous epistemophiliac.

At 3/11/2009 11:01 PM, Blogger Bonnie said...

Great post, Steph! And so true. Some words are just plain wrong.

At 3/11/2009 11:59 PM, Blogger Gamila said...

As a latin major I find the word Pulcher attractive. Especially when it is in it's superlative form--Pulcherrimus. It's true that is sounds ugly in English, but when reading Latin it seems different. It is actually one of my favorite words. Alas, the difference of tastes. :)

At 3/12/2009 12:41 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

You guys have awesome word suggestions. Thanks!

Gamila, that's so cool that you're a Latin major!

I'm impressed that Ben and EHRL knew what crepuscular meant.

Jon, I looked up your word. Ha ha! Let's add it to our example. "Dave loved the way Jane's modest, yet slightly clingy skirt enhanced her callipygian qualities."

At 3/12/2009 3:03 AM, Blogger Kelsi Rose said...

I was a little bummed that callipygous was already shared, as it is one of my most favorite words and body attributes (I am not shallow, I promise). I also like obsequious and asinine.

I like many words, but I am having are hard time coming up with words on the spot. I am such a nerd that I asked for an old dictionary for Christmas one year and was excited to get it (old dictionaries have better words). I take it out ever now and then and read a page or two.

At 3/12/2009 7:03 AM, Anonymous Floyd the Wonderdog said...

All y'all just have to read "Reading the OED". It's the story of a young man who reads the entire Oxford English Dictionary. My favorite word from the book was yepsen, meaning a double hand-full or the holding one's hands together in a double hand-full.

Dave sat on the garden swing next to Jane, enjoying the crepuscular coolness after the heat of the day. He wanted to say something witty, but Jane's astounding pulchritude took his breath away.

He offered her a yepsen of magnolias and whispered, "Jane, let's osculate."


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