Last week, my boss casually asked whether we could use a certain word in the newspaper. My reaction was immediate and severe — I kind of gagged and shouted “No!” at the same time — and it made several people nearby giggle.
I’ll not tell you the word here, partly because we decided against using it in print, but also in part because it’s one of the words I hate most in the world. I loathe it. In fact, I told everyone listening that it ranked in the top 10 on my list of least-favorite words.
(This prompted an excruciatingly long discussion in which that awful word was repeated a few dozen more times.)
This is a real, physical list which, as I think of it, fulfills no purpose other than my love of making lists. But I find it fascinating that some words can evoke such a strong visceral response — positive or negative — just by the sound they make when you say them.
Now, their definition, their connotation or their etymology can add or detract from that effect, but here I’m really just talking about the sound.
I hate — HATE! — the word “suckle,” for instance. “Suss,” “meme” and “totes” (a recent innovation shortening the word “totally”) are like fingernails on a chalkboard. Even writing them here makes me cringe. I don’t really know why. But what I found with a little searching online is that the words people hate really vary.
I knew a guy in college who would have an absolute conniption if someone said “muffin” or “panty.”And it does seem that quite a few people online hate the word “moist,” for whatever reason. There’s even an old Monty Python sketch that has become sort of a running joke between my husband and me. (You have to imagine it read by actors with thick British accents.)
The scene begins with some people talking about croquet hoops.
Cleveland: Ugh! Dreadful tin things.
Idle: I did tell her to stick to wood.
Chapman: Yes, you can’t beat wood. Gorn.
Idle: What’s gorn, dear?
Chapman: Nothing, nothing — just like the word. It gives me confidence. Gorn. Gorn. It’s got a sort of woody quality about it. Gorn. Gooorn. Much better than “newspaper” or “litter bin.” Dreadful tinny sort of words.
Cleveland: Ugh! Frightful words!
If you know anything about Monty Python, you can imagine how it goes on from there. Anyway, now my husband and I always talk about how words are either good and woody or bad and tinny.
I have a list of favorite words, too. Woody words, all of them.Elucidate. Plethora. Voluptuous. Ephemeral. Effervescent. In the book “Eat, Pray, Love” (don’t make fun) Elizabeth Gilbert talks about her favorite Italian word, “attraversiamo,” which means “Let’s cross over.” I think it’s a great word. You don’t have to know the language to like the way a word rolls off the tongue.
I think it was in middle school that I really became aware of the sound of words and how they can be used to create different effects. I had a great teacher, Mrs. Jennings, and we read Poe’s “The Bells,” a poem I can still recite to this day.
(It’s also a poem that introduced me to another of my all-time favorite words: tintinnabulation.)
She explained how in the first stanza, words like “twinkle” and “sprinkle” evoke the silver sleigh bells that represent childhood, and how “molten golden notes” in the second stanza brings to mind the golden wedding bells of adulthood. As someone who loved to read and write, this was a revelation. Molten golden notes.
Those words are so soothing, in contrast to the later parts of the poem, which use words to describe disease and death and are almost difficult to read because of it.
But it shows that even tinny or cacophonous words serve a purpose. Just some of them don’t belong in a newspaper. Although, as we’ve seen, “newspaper” is a rather tinny word itself. Gorn.
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