Friday, October 30, 2009

Words Can Be "Da Balm"


As a mother, I love all my children. But as a writer, I have my favorites -- those words I love to use and those I’d gladly see stricken from the popular parlance.

I am not alone in this. Surveys show most people have positive or negative reactions to some words. As Kristi Gustafson wrote in a recent column, those reactions may be driven by how a word sounds or what it means. For instance, mellifluous made the popular list, and for good reason. The word is a delight to the tongue. It sounds like the harp scale ringtone on my cell phone. It has a natural calming effect like a warm cup of lemon balm. There’s another word that sounds like what it is: balm. Maybe it’s the way your mouth has to slow down to enunciate the “l” and the “m” right next to each other. You can just hear the word stretching over something painful, like a wound, and soothing it.

Another well-liked word that sounds like what it means is discombobulate. I think we like it for the very reason that it packs so much meaning into a single word - it saves us the labor of a longer description. My family uses a related word that I believe may be, to quote my mother, a “homemader.” It’s cattywompus and it sort of means “askew” yet it captures the meaning so much more effectively. Use it this way: The drawer doesn’t close all the way because it’s all cattywompus. It may also be used to describe the typical child’s bedroom.

Then there are the words that sound like what they are in a negative way. Words like mucus and phlegm come to mind – and throat. Just hearing these words can make me gag. I think it should be considered a violation of basic social etiquette to use them at all.

Many of the words that are the most fun to say come from Yiddish. One of my favorites is “noodge,” an essential word for anyone with more than one child. This versatile word functions well as either a noun or a verb, meaning about the same, ie. “Stop being a noodge! Leave your sister alone.”

Finally, there are words I love, not for how they sound, but for the potency of their meaning. The best of this class is hubris, which means arrogance so extreme it draws the attention and wrath of the gods. Wow! That’s a whole Greek tragedy contained in a single word. You’ve got to love it.

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