When Franklin Roosevelt penned his famous address to the nation he first described December 7, 1941 as a “date which will live in world history.” Of course he later changed “world history” to “infamy” and that simple substitution transformed his speech into one of the finest in…well forgive my lameness…world history.
It’s often hard to find the right word. But it’s harder if we don’t even try. According to some studies the average American has a vocabulary of 60,000 words. But we only use about 10,000 of these words.
Why don’t we use all of the words at our disposal?
Perhaps it’s laziness. If someone asks me how I have been, the correct answer is often “conflicted” or “churlish” or “insolent” but my answer is always a simple “fine.”
Perhaps it’s uncertainty. I like the word detritus. It’s descriptive and alive. But I’m not always certain of the proper context.
Perhaps it’s conformity. A certain word or phrase makes it into our shared lexicon and everyone uses it. Some particularly annoying recent examples are “absolutely”, “amazing”, “awesome”, “at the end of the day”‘ and “to be perfectly honest.” If we use a different word we come across as pretentious or haughty. Even use of the word haughty just now made me sound pretentious.
It could be gender. Men simply can’t use words like “stunning”, “majestic”, “poignant”, “gleeful”, or “burlesque”.
I recently attended a civil litigation seminar. If you want to know the importance of a well placed word, spend three days with a room full of lawyers. There you can dissect the difference between “proximate cause” and “producing cause”. It’s a cerebral divertissement.
On consecutive days last week there were articles in the New York Times about the value of words. One was about professional athletes who are trying to trademark their catchphrases. Terrell Owens has sought trade mark protection for “I love me some me” and “Getcha popcorn ready.” Another was about a recent auction of retired brand names like Allsweet margarine, Infoseek and Handi-Wrap plastic wrap.
I saw a recent interview with the lyricist Stephen Sondheim. He spoke about his lifelong obsession with finding just the right word to fit his music. What’s interesting is that he not only has to find the right word but it must be rhymeable. (Rhymeable is not a word but do not feel free to use it because I have applied for trademark protection.) He is particularly gleeful when he is able to combine words in a rhyme that are incongruous matches. His examples: colonel and journal, rougher and suffer.
Then there are words that are a single letter away from being the right word. Spanked and sparked. Trapped and tripped. Point and paint. Rapid and rabid. Pest and post. Haughty and naughty.
I used to go on a Saturday morning run with a group of guys. One morning I showed up in a foul mood and wanted to run alone. One of the other runners was my ex law partner. He asked me how I was feeling. He’s a smart guy and so I decided to answer honestly and directly. I replied “offish.” In other words “stay away.” He laughed and ran next to me the entire run. I loosened up and wondered why he didn’t get the hint. Then I stumbled as we rounded a corner and he said: “I can see that you are a little oafish this morning.” So I laughed to myself and said: “Absolutely.”