Feeling a Word’s Curves—Oh, the Ecstasy!

Dictionary page
Writers can have a volatile relationship with words, often loving the little darlings when they line up in convivial cooperation. Sometimes words supply delight even when sentence forms are abused to torque a subject or vandalize a verb. “Words, yes, friends all!” the hoodwinked writer declares. Until the words land on the page with an audible clunk, or when an apt phrase or exact expression can’t be found no matter how deep the writer shovels into her soul. “Words, damn them, unreliable curs!”

I feel my own little death when I can’t summon the rhythmic bits of language that brick out a character or spin a scene, no matter fiction or fact. But here, I want to talk about appreciating a certain sense of words as objects, a savoring of the spice from a word stew.

In this case, I’m not talking about meanings; I’m referring to loving the feel of a word, its texture, whether it’s silky or scratchy, the odd combo of visual/visceral sensation you might get in your head from processing the very spelling of a word. You know, when looking a words gives you this kind of sensation. That kind of word sensitivity started young in me too—maybe it was all those ice-cream brain freezes that cooled my cranium.

The Weight of Words

Anyway, I had an early awareness of the weight of words, and some I gravitated to some more so than others. For instance, words with “x” in them, like bollix or flummoxed. Do those give you the little frisson I’m alluding to? And how certain words feel just right in their denotation: queasy has that little lurch or drop in its letter construction—in its stomach—that is carried through in its definition. Or a word like morbid: it has a deliciously dark feel.

I’ve heard it said by some comedians that some words, by their letters alone, are funny. Words that start with “k” or the k sound, for instance. Probably why I like the sound of the word crapulous—or maybe it just harkens to my Coca Cola-crapulous days behind the gargantuan brandy snifter in which I housed and hogged down all that carbonated sugar water as a child.

Digging Through Your Dictionaries

I wrote an essay a long while back for a magazine called Verbatim, about the crazy collection of dictionaries I had, and how fun it is to just flip through them and look for words that have a furry feeling, or a sinister sparkle, or a wry rictus. It’s a challenge to look through any dictionary page and not see some words that make you squint or grimace or grin.

Like your words ‘lectronic? There are bunches of word sites, but here are a couple of fun ones: Wordnik and Wordoid. Wordnik has a nice interactive aspect where you can upload your own usage notes, comments and citations to their word examples. Wordoid lets you play with made-up words. But don’t let your mother catch you.

Word: The Cat’s Meow

Let’s extend the word-delirium extend that a bit: the Shelf Awareness daily compendium of bookish (but never boorish) news revealed this statement from author Rick Riordan a while back about something he learned in his Egypt-themed novel research:

I did quite a bit of research, and had shelves of books on hieroglyphs and how magic pertained. The ancient Egyptians considered all writing magic. They had to be careful: if they created the word “cat,” they had to deface it slightly, because they believed they could create a cat. The idea was that the ultimate form of magic was to speak and the world began. You see that influence in the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” All these ancient cultures dovetail, and they were all forming and evolving at the same time.

Behold the power of words! (Note: I spent all day writing variants of “Jaguar” yesterday, but no car appeared. I did see an old cat move haltingly through the yard, however…)

So, feel the curve of your words, know which ones excite and enchant, which are sturdy soldiers, and which weak-kneed wastrels. You’ll never be able to truly tame them, but sometimes just getting them to play nice with one another is a mountain topped.

7 thoughts on “Feeling a Word’s Curves—Oh, the Ecstasy!

  1. mellifluous

    dichotomy

    pungent

    scurrilous

    Some words are worth saying aloud just for their sound, but when their meaning matches the noises we make, it’s splendid.

    Where words get me muttering under my breath (or back porch) is when a common word, precisely the right word, plays hide-and-forget with me.

    “Curator” was lost for an entire week. “Validation” even longer. Not rare or difficult. Well, they were being difficult, certainly. But why did they vanish from my brain just as I was about to type them last month?

    Next time, I check under the back porch first.

  2. Your mistake, Tom, was in not writing the words “E-Type Jaguar.” “Porsche” was bound to go bollocks.

    And there, I see what you mean. Every word I used there has its own delightful story. “Mistake,” in containing the work “take,” hints that we’ve missed out on something because of the error of our ways. Miss-take. “Jaguar” evokes the glorious mysteries of the jungle, especially if pronounced in British. And so on.

    In a work I just finished, which ended up being of somewhat moderate length as well as being edited by Sir Tom here, my favourite phrase of all was “Briarean legions of merry mice.” It referred to laboratory mice who were fed alcoholic beverages in an attempt to find the causative agent in a food scandal. Sometimes I say it to myself at random times, it’s just so fun. “Briarean legions of merry mice.”

    Everyone should do that. Savor the delicious words you lay down on the page. You’ll want to write more of them.

  3. Joel, I’ve always loved “mellifluous”; probably for the same reasons I like “susurrus.” There’s something that trickles down the tongue on those ones. Scurrilous is a pal of mine too (and now that I think of it, many of my pals are scurrilous).

    Don’t get me started on the “why in Odin’s name can’t I remember that word. The ants have finally tunneled from the top to the bottom of my pourous brain.” Then I blame it on not eating vegetables.

  4. Rick, you are right. It wasn’t logical to illustrate a point in the essay with a stunning update of the old XK-E and then dither on about a Porsche. Not the same beast whatsoever, though they both can purr.

    Your Briarean chant does have a merry cant, it does. (Though it’s certainly not cant, if we go sideways, word-wise.) I am your dining partner at the word-savoring table, anytime. As long as you buy the expensive ones.

  5. gobsmacked

    Despite its onomatopoeic clunkiness, I think the word delivers a surprisingly delicate, pleasant sting.

  6. Annie, funny, right when I looked at your “gobsmacked,” I thought of another favorite word of mine: “blatherskite,” (naturally, one I first saw in Mark Twain’s writing). It’s fun to play Word Pong!

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