Ever come across a word and think, “Why would anyone use that?” Ok, most people probably don’t care, but I sometimes find a word so ungainly, so inappropriate to its meaning, or so ill-used that it makes me wonder if the people who came up with it ever hear themselves talk. I’m talking about the musical quality words have, something every poet pays attention to and almost everyone else ignores.
Yet it’s something even the oblivious respond to. Some words, some phrases, are better remembered than others. This is why poetry was the most effective way to pass on knowledge before the written word. Besides rhythm, poetry has flow – created by putting words in the best order for ease of speaking or emphasis. It’s why one of the most useful editing techniques is to read your work out loud.
But this article isn’t about sentence flow, it’s about the visceral chewiness of words. Some words jive with what they mean and others kind of suck. Take the word coruscate for example:
1. To give forth flashes of light; sparkle and glitter: diamonds coruscating in the candlelight.
2. To exhibit sparkling virtuosity: a flutist whose music coruscated throughout the concert hall.
First off, the second definition is so twee it makes me gag. I mean, who ever thinks of a beautiful melody as “coruscating?” Coruscate sounds more like a rude interruption at a concert: coughing, walking heavy-heeled, tripping over the drum-set. The word lacks a sense of grace. I’d say it’s even an iffy synonym for sparkling, but it’s possible someone can use it in a sentence that doesn’t make me cringe.
Many words, specifically ones that came from the 18th century efforts to latinize English, have that effect. Instead of flowing off the tongue, they dribble like port from an Edwardian gentleman’s mouth as he drones himself to sleep in an overstuffed wingback chair. They’re words tin-eared Polidori’s use in an effort to sound intellectual, and they’ve fallen into obscurity for a reason – they’re unrelatable.
Early academics mistook words as platonic manifestations of the pure mind. They failed to realize how words have a physiological component. Even if they don’t describe physical reality, they have a physical feel when you speak. The most famous linguistic experiment is one involving the nonsense words kiki and bouba, asking people things like which word means round and which means pointy. Across every culture the answers have been damned near universal. Sharpness or roundness of a word is related to the shape it makes in your mouth.
You know, like in this Monty Python sketch:
Anyway, this neurolinguistic evidence disproves the only original idea semioticians ever had: the linguistic sign is arbitrary. Sorry, Saussure, but it turns out you’re just as full of shit as Freud. This is why semiotics is a tiny footnote in linguistic textbooks and only post-modernist
idiots artists still take it seriously. Saussure batted at onomatopoeia like a piñata, as though knocking that down made his theory irrefutable, but linguists have since discovered a deeper instinct: anthropomorphism. Yes, we even do it to words.
Of course words can mutate, be adopted from another language, or be artificially contrived. Those artificial contrivances aren’t always in aural harmony with the concepts they describe. “Kleenex” overtook tissue in usage, even though “tissue” sounds like what it’s used for, but that’s down to the power of marketing, which isn’t arbitrary at all.
Advertisers have the power to mutate words as well, such as their idiotic use of decadent to mean delicious. It’s like a reverse-euphemism, where someone needed to come up with a word for “moist chocolate fudge with nuts in it” and decided to use a synonym for wallowing in shit. If you so badly need a d-word for chocolate cake what’s wrong with delicious? Or if that’s played out, how about delectable? Delectable has that lovely t to soften the c – the tongue kisses the top of the teeth. Ect is like lick, whereas decadent’s dec is like gack. Able is like nibble, but dent is like dental – sure it conjures the image of teeth, but not in a nice way at all. Decadent is an ugly word.
Outside idiotic coinages and memery (like that “-gate” suffix bullshit) I’m convinced a word’s harmony with its meaning is why some words fall into obscurity and others stick around. Sure there are other factors, such as a population becoming unfamiliar with the concept a word describes as their culture changes. But for obscure words that have perfectly functional counterparts in common use, it can be down to a difference in mouthfeel (which can also be different across cultures).
The problem with some words, those that can be best described as convolutions, isn’t that people are too stupid to understand them. Those words draw blanks in the brain. They fail to convey their own meaning. They’re shitty words. Words are more vivid when they have music to them, when they invoke the other senses and light up your brain.
So next time you find yourself caressing a convoluted word because it carries the most specific flavor of meaning, with lots of double-meanings and nuances that no one else will ever know unless they pour over your prose like a Joycian puzzlebox, take a moment to consider how much it evokes in its syllables, punctuates the sentence, or makes it flow. Because if it doesn’t do that, the meaning doesn’t matter – you still have the wrong word.by