Writers tend to be dictionary Bedouins. We double-check the spelling of a particular word but then wander a dictionary’s pages, noticing words we’ve never used.
I’ve spent many a lunch hour entertaining myself with these newly discovered (but not new) words. Sometimes, when an unfamiliar word causes my world to stop rotating for a few minutes, I grab a highlighter and commit (self-contained) vandalism.
Just recently I realized how selfish it is to keep my daily lexical journeys aboard the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria all to myself.
I don’t believe in “junking up” client content with many bloated words in rapid-fire succession. However, I do believe in experimenting with language that might capture a target audience’s atttention. Thus, a new By All Writes blog-post series transitions from its cozy womb to the outside world.
To borrow from Willy Wonka: “I hope you enjoy it. I think you will.” Let’s start at the very beginning…
In Search of Onomatopoeia, I Found Oort Cloud: As we all know, onomatopoeia is a literary device. These are words that represent an actual sound: buzz, caw, clang, hiss, moo, and the like.
For school kids (or authors who incorporate animals as characters in their work), using onomatopoeia in a writing assignment can be fun.
But then I noticed something I’d never heard of before: Oort cloud. This phrase intrigued me so that I highlighted it (in orange). I ponder it each time I eyeball page 811 in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition). Here’s the definition you’re desperate for me to share with you:
“a spherical shell of small frozen bodies believed to surround the sun far beyond the orbit of Pluto and from which some are dislodged when perturbed (as by a passing star) to fall toward the sun as comets.”
Whoa. I’m unsure I fully understand this definition, but I do know the phrase Oort cloud has incredible potential:
“There’s storage of your data in the cloud, and then there’s the Oort cloud!” (Say what?)
“The next time you see a shooting star, click your heels three times and whisper, ‘There’s no place like an Oort cloud.'”
I’ll speculate that Neil deGrasse Tyson has some astronomic thoughts regarding Oort clouds…
In Search of Idiosyncrasy, I Found Ignoratio Elenchi: I don’t think I’ll offend anyone by saying we all have endearing characteristics that others label as peculiar or quirky. But the word idiosyncrasy isn’t the one that’s going to garner you newfound respect or attention from your business friends.
Your new secret weapon in getting someone to remember you from an initial encounter at a networking event is…ignoratio elenchi. (Um, what?!?) I like this one so much that I’m including a pronunciation sound bite (so you can practice saying it before laying it on an unaware newbie).
The official definition:
“a fallacy in logic of supposing a point proved or disproved by an argument proving or disproving something not at issue.”
No, I didn’t pull this one out of my derriere. Please don’t tell me you can’t grasp the immediate use of ignoratio elenchi in a business setting. When next you’re attending a business-related obligation, and you overhear two people in a verbal altercation regarding something you don’t consider meaningful, this is what you say:
“What we have here is an ignoratio elenchi, so let’s agree that agreeing or disagreeing just doesn’t matter.”
If that doesn’t work, there’s always the famous line uttered by both Strother Martin and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. (Roll over the link and click it.)
In Search of Götterdämmerung, I Found Gormless: Have you ever attempted to pronounce Götterdämmerung? It translates from German as the catchy “twilight of the gods.” (It’s also the name of Wagner’s final opera in The Ring cycle–heady stuff!) Here, I’ll give you a jump start.
So anyway, here’s the word now honored via yellow highlighter on page 503 of my dictionary: gormless. It rhymes with formless, but has quite a different definition:
“lacking intelligence : STUPID.”
Ouch–tell us how you really feel, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. When compelled to call out a competitor’s product or service as dumb, inane, moronic or merely stupid, now you can do so without being blatantly offensive.
Go ahead, test it out during a personal conversation. Let me know what happens. I consider gormless a word that will serve you well and often, as long as you don’t blurt out its definition. This is my special gift to you; please treat it accordingly.
In Search of Roustabout, I Found Rubidium: Do I even remember why I searched for roustabout in my dictionary a year or two ago? If I didn’t use it in a client’s manuscript (ooh, perhaps not), then it must have been the result of viewing the Elvis Presley classic on TCM.
No, I am not joking. Before you ridicule a film you’ve (probably) never seen, I’ll leave you with this: Barbara Stanwyck is in the d@mn movie! It’s a circus thing…
The word rubidium is one that will warm (or is that scorch?) my scientific friends’ hearts. As someone who doesn’t have the periodic table committed to memory, I didn’t realize that rubidium is
“a soft silvery metallic element of the alkali group that reacts violently with water and bursts into flames spontaneously in air.”
Do you sense where I’m going with this word? It would make for a “hot” visual analogy in an ad or brochure. Try this on for (marketing) size:
“Unlike rubidium, we don’t act out or burn out. We’re made of stronger stuff from the periodic table, more similar to titanium. If experimentation makes you queasy, go with a stable partner: Elemental Marketing Professionals.”
Or as a certain car rental company would say, “Go Like a Pro!”
In Search of Anachronism, I Found Anacoluthon: Not to get all wonky on you, but this example is actually a doubleheader. One word is a literary device most of you are familiar with (I hope), while my most recent discovery is a “syntactical inconsistency.” (This is Merriam-Webster’s description, not mine.)
The best way for me to refresh your memory regarding anachronism is by sending you to a cool website (Cracked.com) that has lots of nifty examples. Another clue: R.E.M.’s 1991 album that sold like gangbusters, Out of Time.
If, like me, you’ve never heard of the word anacoluthon, here’s Merriam-Webster’s take on this less-known literary device:
“a shift in an unfinished sentence from one syntactic construction to another.”
Still not ringing any linguistic bells, you say? That’s okay, don’t let it perplex you–I’ve done the due diligence. Here are several entertaining examples of anacoluthon, courtesy of my prowess with Google’s search engine:
“Mayhaps you desire to–SQUIRREL!” (Alpha, from the Pixar movie Up.)
“That’s very nice work. Let me ask you something. How do you get them so sma…Hey, there goes Elvis! Yo, King!” (Beetlejuice, from the movie of the same name. It’s the scene when he’s in the afterlife waiting room and he tries to switch his ticket with the one a witch doctor is holding onto…)
Are you an old-school disciple of the dictionary? (It’s not a badge of shame, trust me.) If so, do you ever wander when looking up a particular word’s proper spelling?
For those of you who mirror my whimsical behavior, what was the most unusual word you stumbled upon in your quest to spell another word correctly?
Would a blog-post series regarding “The Benefits of Dictionary Page-Flipping…” hold your interest, or am I delusional to think such a series would spark a bit of viral fire? “And remember, this is for posterity so be honest.” All that’s left to say is…SQUIRREL!
Lori Shapiro is the owner of By All Writes LLC, a business-to-business (B2B) writing, editing, and research company in Marlton, New Jersey. She revels in shielding her clients from the pain of writing their own print or web marketing and educational copy. Please call Lori Shapiro at 856-810-9764 or e-mail By All Writes LLC at firstname.lastname@example.org for a no-obligation project quote today!