Words, Words, Words

November 30, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Marcia Yudkin

During one of my entrepreneurial projects, I stood in a recording studio at Berklee College in Boston performing a script I’d written on increasing one’s vocabulary. Another woman and I took turns saying each word, defining it, then illustrating it in a sentence. During a break, the other woman turned to me and commented, “You really feel words, don’t you?”

I looked at her. Did I?

Euphonious: nice-sounding. The salesman disarmed me by speaking in euphonious tones.

In elementary school, tinkering with words was as natural for me as other kids playing with trucks or dolls. An aunt gave me a hardcover anthology of poems for children, and I was hooked. The sound of words and ways they could rhyme captivated me. I would read verses from The Golden Treasury of Poetry out loud and in a wire-bound notebook scribble stanzas of my own. At age seven, I read two of my creations on a local TV show, swinging into the echoes of “know” with “snow,” of “spring” with “king.” That aural resonance was the thing 

Flaunt: display flagrantly. Though he had so much he could never spend it all, Richie Rich tried not to flaunt his wealth.

From the enchanting sound of words, I moved on to their meaning. With my weekly allowance I bought a paperback called 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. It cost 35 cents. Before going to sleep, I studied it, learning words like “ascetic,” “querulous” and “vindictive.” I especially devoured a chapter called “Words for Mature Minds” containing words that the author, Wilfred Funk, said nine-year-olds would not be able to understand.

Not long afterwards I injected one of those words—“maudlin”—into a composition for my third-grade class. “You see, I was not the maudlin type,” I wrote, noting how surprised I was that other kids cried their first day of school. “So there, Dr. Funk!” I thought with great satisfaction (although my use of “maudlin” was a bit off kilter).

Apotheosis: culmination or highest point. Marilyn Monroe was the apotheosis of Hollywood glamour.

Words also gathered associations. Today I can’t hear the word “obstreperous” without thinking of my grandfather. Self-educated because he’d had to leave school at 13, he read mysteries and histories in a high-backed wing chair in our living room, tapping the lit tip of his Havana cigar into a beanbag ashtray. Even when we kids behaved well, he called us obstreperous, I think because he enjoyed having that complicated a word roll off his tongue. 

Since I too read like a fiend, I collected phrases from books that stuck word for word in my memory. This might consist of a bombastic nonfiction title, like What You Should Know About Communism and Why, or a snappy line from Catcher in the Rye, such as “If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff.” And as a grownup, I felt thrilled when I was able to insert—appropriately, wryly—Jane Eyre’s “Reader, I married him” into one of my books. With just four words I could breathe a puff of Charlotte Bronte’s passionate intensity into the tale of my own clandestine romance.

Visceral: felt immediately in the gut. Her opponent’s insult had a visceral impact on the governor.

As my Berklee College script-reading partner had intuited, for me words have one more element. Besides sound, meanings and associations, they have oomph. Words can shoot out of you like pellets of energy or at you like a baseball hitting your solar plexus. “Obstreperous” has oomph. So does “albondigas,” a punchy word from my seventh-grade Spanish class that I loved so much I would say it again and again with exaggerated vigor. (It means “meatballs.”)

Sometimes the oomph is personal. I spent a year working in China at a time when outsiders stood out. When I traveled, kids would run after me and my blond companion, gleefully shouting “Waiguo ren!” (“Foreigners!”). When I rode the bus in Beijing, adults would stare. After eleven months of this, a five- or six-year-old boy leaped into the air with “Waiguo ren!” when he saw me, flicking a switch I didn’t know I had. Without thinking, I stalked toward the boy. Just as quickly, the boy’s father stepped in front of his son. “He’s welcoming you, you see,” he said in Chinese, giving me a worried look.

Catharsis: emotional release. After so much struggle and pain, the funeral represented a catharsis for the poor man’s family.

Ah, words. In any language, they dance, sing, point and sometimes sting. 

__________________

Marcia Yudkin lives in the woods of Goshen, Massachusetts. The author of 17 books, she publishes a Substack newsletter called Introvert UpThink, in which she critiques society’s myths and misunderstandings about introverts. In addition to her newsletter, you can follow her on Twitter

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§ 12 Responses to Words, Words, Words

  • Words,word, words. I think I love them all, especially the roll of onomatopoeia sliding gleefully off the tongue.

  • My vocabulary is not nearly as extensive as yours, Marcia, but I do love how they feel and sound. Do you think this is an introvert thing? (I signed up for your newsletter.)

    • Karen,
      Thanks for the question!
      Introverts and extroverts have a different relationship to words. Introverts are generally careful to say what they mean. They often think through what to say ahead of time and don’t like being put on the spot for something to say. Extroverts are much more likely to blurt out ideas without caring which words they use, and if challenged about their word choice want to just wave it off.
      For instance, compare the difference in language use between Barack Obama (introvert) and Donald Trump (extrovert). I mean that as a comment on their personalities, not their politics. I could go on, and maybe that’s a good topic for my newsletter…

  • Andrea A Firth says:

    Lovely essay Marcia. I, too, keep a list of new words that I love. Not long ago I added conglobate, which means to collect of form into a ball, like those roll-poly bugs I used to find in the crawl space when I was a kid.

  • Mehar Rizwan says:

    Euphonious

  • Judy Reeves says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes! And love the way words taste under the tongue and fill the mouth. Thank you for this perfect way to begin my morning.

  • Sally Showalter says:

    Oh, I loved every word of this! I just pulled out my synonym finder! Thank you, Marcia.

  • Margaret says:

    Wow Marcia,
    I really enjoyed reading your post especially as I haven’t visited Brevity for a while.
    I agree with your reference to certain words having a certain oomph.
    In our human biology class in the first year of cadet nurse training at college my friend and I still laugh at two words we learned about referring to muscles quadratus lumborum and systerna chaiae (think the latter is spelt correctly).
    Your reference to children in Bejing using words to call foreigners has led me to reflect on my frequent visits to Gambia.
    Local children are dissuaded from calling white people toubabs which is said to be referring to the price of a slave.
    In the tourist areas the word is seldom heard but outside children often run after you shouting toubab.
    I love Gambia and it’s people and I can feel a post coming on. Thank you for that.
    I will check out your substack newsletter.
    Take care
    Margaret.

  • […] AARP’s: The Ethel. And congrats to my Writer’s Digest essay student Marcia Yudkin for this essay she worked on in class and published in […]

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