The more I consider words, the more beautiful and useful and strange they seem individually and in combination: What does “hopelessly endearing,” used in a recent New Yorker review to describe an actor’s smile, literally mean? Yet the phrase captures a doofus charm, and I can picture George Clooney pulling it off.
I got frustrated with my own writing vocabulary when I felt I’d strung together about a dozen words to build a book-length manuscript. And it came to perplex me how often I’d reach for a pedestrian word when another, more precise or pleasing—not necessarily fancy—word was at hand. (In my youth I listened to a teacher disparage the inept use of thesauruses, but the tool doesn’t inevitably result in the use of a fifty-cent word; it can remind the writer of a simpler, stronger one.)
For instance, once when I depicted my farm’s hired hand I said he “worked stubbornly” at a hateful task. Stubborn he surely was, but what I wanted, especially because I was drawing a parallel between him and our tagalong terrier, was dogged. Everyone knows its meaning—right there in its letters—and yet it didn’t occur to me until a friend asked a question implying I should strengthen the comparison between man and canine. Even assiduously was an unconsidered option. (Oddly, sedulous means the same thing as assiduous—diligent, persevering—though, to me, it feels negative, probably because it sounds like credulous, which means gullible.) Dogged took the day because of its sound, connotations, our dog, and the word’s vernacular wallop.
Later I wrote that my worker, like our terrier chasing a rat, was pertinacious: holding firmly to an opinion or a course of action; determined, tenacious, persistent, persevering, purposeful, resolute, dogged, indefatigable, insistent, single-minded, unrelenting, relentless, tireless, unshakable; stubborn, obstinate, inflexible, unbending.
So pertinacious implies a manic vibe.
The glory of words lies not just in their gross meanings of course—the huge differences between feminine, effeminate, womanly, and ladylike—but in even finer shadings. The connotations words carry are those of other words, and often words physically carry other words: the pert in pertinacious adds a comic tint. And the sounds within words hit evocative notes: Is someone placid or is he insouciant (more gay than unperturbed—and with a grin)? I’ll likely never use effulgent—shining forth brilliantly; radiant—because it carries for me in its sound the sense of fulsome or maybe even effluent: “The foul effluent emerging from the illegal septic pipe shone effulgently in the moonlight.”
A term I like but have never written is occlude: to stop up. Maybe it’s one of those words only writers ever use, like inchoate: not yet completed, rudimentary. For some reason, decades ago, I learned crenellated (those toothy battlements at the tops of castle turrets) and have never deployed it. Recently I came across castellated, which means built like a castle or, more evocatively, describes a countryside filled with castles. Consider the efficiency and beauty—and strangeness of origin—in being able to describe a region as castellated rather than saying, “Man, there sure were a lot of castles in that country.”
Palimpsest seems somewhat pretentious—“a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text,” says Dictionary.com—even though it’s specific and useful where needed. Liminal is likewise awfully writerly, but at least it’s lovely. And who uses crepuscular but writers? It means “like twilight” or “dim” and usually it’s employed as a highfalutin description of the light at dusk. But Dictionary.com supplies this arresting sentence fragment (from the Wall Street Journal) which shows the metaphorical and tonal richness possible with well-chosen, uncommon words: “. . . the period’s crepuscular charm and a waning of the intense francophilia that used to shape the art market.”
For some reason, Annie Dillard loves quondam (former) and catenary (a type of curve); she used them often in her books. Which is different from waiting a lifetime to use the perfect word and having an editor strike it out. I recall a Chicago newspaper editor saying, years ago at a conference, how a crusty old reporter who loved the poetry of words defended his description of highways after a snowstorm as “reliquaries of abandoned cars.” She wanted to substitute “graveyards,” of course, but he desired to convey his awe at seeing a road turned into a “receptacle, such as a coffer or shrine, for keeping or displaying sacred relics” (Dictionary.com).
Reliquary is truly gorgeous—and its metaphorical richness delights; with reliquary, the reporter showed prosaic streets transformed by snow into display cases for our culture’s indeed sacred mode of transportation. No wonder he glared at his kid editor whose “graveyard” was mundane by comparison—a dead metaphor—merely comparing stalled cars to carcasses.