Useful Words II
Bill Long 6/15/06
I will move more quickly now.
1. Sobersides. This is a noun and refers to a serious or solemn person. I don't think it is much in use today, but it would have an immediate large field of usage if we would just pluck it up and dust it off. Actually the word sobersided seems more used today. "A sober-sided, meticulous investigator."
2. Sparge. Sparge is a verb derived from the Latin which means to "sprinkle" or "scatter." A whole variety of English terms come from this same root, among them begin "disperse, asperge, asperse, aspersion." The Diaspora among the Jews consists of those who are "scattered" to the four winds, even though they still may see themselves as the Chosen People. Indeed, the word "sparse" in English originally meant to be widely spaced or spread out. Writing that was "sparse" would be writing that is "loose" or which "takes up too much room." "He sparges advice to all-comers, careful, however, to tailor his remarks to the needs expresses." I think we might even be able to massage the word to suggest a rather liberal dispersal of something, sort of like a sophisticated person's "splurging."
3. Spavined. A spavin is a "hard bony tumor or excresence...on a horse's leg." Thus, a spavined horse is one so affected. It is halt, lame, superannuated. But the word also has a figurative meaning--to be "lame, halting, maimed." We might have spavined efforts or spavined opinions. The Saturday Review spoke of spavined Christians. OW Holmes, Sr., used it vividly: "If they ever praise each other's bad drawings, or long-winded novels, or spavined verses, nobody ever supposes it was from admiration." Whenever you need another synonym for tired, lame, ineffectual, worn-out or "over the hill," try spavined.
4. Stichomythia. This is a word derived from classical Greek drama which has no English equivalent. It is a dialgoue in alternate lines in which each speaker disputes the previous speaker's words, sometimes by repeating them. This rapid-fire dialogue is captured beautifully in the 20th century by Eugene O'Neill in A Long Day's Journey into Night. A stichomythic exchange, then, would be a vigorous back and forth exchange between two highly-engaged speakers. Perhaps this is too obscure, but I think maybe not...
5. Struthious. This word means, simply, "ostrich-like." Normally used only by scientists who study ostriches, I think it has a much greater utility, especially when combined with the word "behavior." "Once again, the City Council demonstrated its struthious disregard for reality by ignoring citizen input on the proposed stadium."
6. Sulciform. The Latin word "sulcus" means "ditch" or "groove." Thus, something that is "sulciform" is grooved. Anatomical references come readily to mind. Instead of writing about "furrowed" brows, we might want to speak of "sulciform" foreheads. Potholes in roads can become "sulciform divots."
7. Suss. The word only goes back to 1953, and at first meant "to suspect someone of a crime." However, in the 1960s and 1970s it came to mean "to work or figure out"; "to investigate, to dicover the truth about a person or thing." From 1966: "Youth susses things out on its own." Or, more recently, "A morning's browsing in a book shop will suffice for you to suss out the market." Rather than continuing to use "figure out" or "decipher" or some such words, why not plunge into "suss out"? "In order to be an effective speaker, you must suss out the factors that make an audience pay attention to you."
8. Various words for "nests" or "haunts." Not all of these will be useful, but they are all attested, and give us libery to try to come up with more like them. An aviary is where birds are kept; an apiary where bees reside; a swannery is, so to speak, a cygnet's ring; a nunnery is where nuns live. Then we have a termitary, where termites live ("The dendrophagous little creatures had made his kitchen wall their termitary"); a vestiary is a closet; a bestiary, however, is a "natural history of animals treated so that the peculiarities of animals shall convey a wholesome moral."
9. Teratology and Aretalogy. The latter word doesn't appear in the Collegiate, but is very familiar to me from my doctoral work in the history of early Christianity more than 25 years ago. While a teratology narrates wonders or marvels about nature or the world, an aretalogy describes the virtues of a single person. Every time we have a Presidential campaign we have stories circulating about the Presidential wannabees that are often a cross between a teratology and an aretalogy--where the person's virtues and the accompanying wonders are narrated. Look for hagiographic biographies of candidates to appear in the next two years.
10. Theriaca. This word means "an antidote to poison," but it has an extremely rich history which can only be briefly noted. A "therios" in Greek is a "wild beast" or "poisonous reptile." From earliest days in English (early Middle Ages), a theriaca was considered to be an antidote to a poison, especially the bite of a venomous snake. The flesh of the snake was thought to be a necessary ingredient of the antidote to its bite; thus it was a "beastly" cure. The word theriaca became transformed in English to "treacle," which is a medicinal remedy. Thus, one might inoculate oneself against the blandishments of someone by the theriaca of his earlier promises. We talk about taking a "page from someone's book" to interpret someone's later action. The theriaca presents a similar idea.
11. Titivate. So, I will conclude with a word that means nothing like its sound. Well, we have "titillate," which means to entice or excite interest. But titivate comes from the same root as "tidy," and means to improve or spruce up something. Nevertheless, even a distinguished writer as Dylan Thomas used it as a synonym to titillate in 1933: "Even now twelve heartfelt pages are titivating the senses of a Dead Letter superintendent." Perhaps this word will have to be relegated to the dung heap of discarded English words because of the possibilities of confusion in our culture. But you can use it to express not simply the idea of tidying something up--as in cleaning it up--but also in improving it, smartening it, shaping it to something more beautiful.
Good luck to you, also, as you rediscover the dictionary...
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long