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Do You Watch Your Words?

Aug 17, 2007
If you come across a word you don't know, look it up. My grandmother made that rule to improve her grandchildren's vocabularies and I can still hear her reminding me. Well, looking on the luminous side, if my dictionary is out of reach - or even better - in another room, I can increase my wordage and my exercise at the same time.

Because of the trips to my Webster's - okay, Grandmother - because of the sojourns, I've learned words that are fun to use just because of the way they sound. Ensconced means to settle comfortably; but if I say I was ensconced in a hammock, it sounds like I was doing something more important than relaxing. Loquacious instead of talkative; parsimonious in place of cheap; mordant rather than sarcastic - I've learned synonyms that make talking to myself sound much more interesting.

Then there are the words whose meanings I don't understand after I've looked them up. Pralltriller means inverted mordent. That's not mordant, meaning sarcastic. It's mordent, meaning an ornament made by a single rapid alternation of a principal tone with a subsidiary tone a half step or whole step below. I won't be using pralltriller often in coversations.

Yes, Grandmother, my jaunts to the dictionary have taught me new words. However, I'm embarrassed to admit they've also taught me that I've been using some incorrectly. Now I can't be perturbed when my husband comes home late. At first he thought that was good news, but no. Perturbed means troubled greatly. He's late too often for that to accurately describe how I feel; but I can be - and often am - disturbed when he's tardy.

Then there are the words whose misuse spread faster than the flu. When I heard a newscaster say, "He goes" instead of "He says", my husband heard me say something...defined as an expletive. Anxious is another one that's often used incorrectly. It means worried, not eager. Thus I'm anxious about anxious being misused. Scan means to analyze. I had thought it meant to glance at quickly and I wasn't the only one.

So many of us Americans used scan incorrectly that "glance at quickly" is now accepted as an "Americanism" - American English instead of English English. In fact, there are so many accepted Americanisms that my Webster's dictionary is officially titled "Webster's New World Dictionary Of The American Language". Ain't ain't in an English dictionary, but it's in mine. If they have dictionaries in heaven, my grandmother ain't going to like that. Neither is Noah Webster.
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KNIGHT PIERCE HIRST takes humorous looks at life.
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