I like words. I’ve been an avid reader since primary school and will often pick up a word not in my general vocabulary from reading or TV and then use it in a sentence. It’s a personal challenge that I still employ today in the workplace. I would come across words not part of my general lexicon during my undergraduate degree; for example, paradigm, abortifacient, parturient, recidivist, traduce, juxtaposition, prosopographical and Disneyfication, the latter referring to lion cubs Simba and Nahla at Longleat Safari Park in a paper devoted to heritage and public history, and slot them into (what I would hope to be) a cohesive sentence.
Whilst not hugely comfortable with constructive feedback, I was receptive to it with a small group of friends and with sessions the university offered its students, after all, further education is expensive in the UK and in essence I’d paid upfront for it. At one drop in centre for academic review, I offered up my work on nineteenth-century American slavery. It was suggested that I insert the definition of antebellum, I argued that it did not need the definition as the professor marking the paper knew its meaning! A lecturer also advised me to limit repeated use of the word ‘interesting’, as it would not necessarily infer that whatever I had written was interesting. She suggested I replace it with the word ‘fascinating’ which could subliminally infer that the subject was fascinating. A piece of advice I did accept.
When a fellow student critiqued an essay and stated she didn’t like the way I’d constructed part of a paragraph, I asked her why, ‘It’s spurious’, she said. So I rewrote the offending sentences and inserted the word ‘spurious’ for her to subsequently find. Another was discussing her ideas for her work on the punk era. I suggested she used the word zeitgeist, a word she hadn’t come across before, to encapsulate the spirit of the movement. I truly enjoyed the editing process, selecting synonyms and correcting syntax and cheerfully emailed drafts to my friends to read, whilst I anticipated receiving their work to hone my editing skills.
During research for my paper on man-midwifery, one contemporary eighteenth-century pamphlet called the forceps a ‘new-fangled gimcrack of an instrument’. Immediately I was off on one of my regular tangents, discovering the definition of the word ‘gimcrack’. It indicated that the author of the piece believed that forceps were cheap, shoddily made, ultimately useless, and used to self-aggrandise the position of the man-midwife. Furthermore, I discovered that a popular racehorse of the day was called Gimcrack and notable enough to be painted by eminent artist George Stubbs. The horse was small by today’s standards, standing just over 14 hands. Far from being useless, he is recorded as winning 26 times. It’s a broad leap, man-midwifery to horse racing.
A couple of weeks ago a friend WhatsApped me the BBC article ‘Academics uncover 30 words ‘lost’ from English language’. Having worked in pharmacy for the past sixteen years, I asked my friend in reply, if she thought I was a quacksalver (an archaic example included on the list). ‘Maybe’, she answered. FYI, a quacksalver is a person who ‘dishonestly claims knowledge of, or a skill in medicine or cures’. Family and friends regularly turn to me for recommendations when poorly and so it was a couple of days later my daughter asked me to diagnose her symptoms, much to her confusion I replied, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help, I’m not a quacksalver!’
Another word from the article appeals: peacockize, ‘to behave like a peacock; esp. to pose or strut ostentatiously’. A prime example would be Tony Manero, John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever, when he dresses up to go out at night and struts. It also resonates with a dandy or a fop: a Beau Brummell type of character and a there are countless pavonine examples in the world of celebrity, never mind eighteenth- and nineteenth-century male fashions.
I never studied English in higher education and I do wish I’d paid more attention during schooling, but even so, I left school thirty years ago and it’s little wonder I don’t remember a thing and that is reflected in that a lot of what I write is instinctual rather than following regimented rules (although I’d love to know the rules). Finding a word that is particularly pertinent to a subject, such as ‘antebellum’ when analysing pre civil war USA, may be axiomatic, but when selecting other words that are ambiguous or have a more fluid definition it is nice to have the benefit of the thesaurus on the computer or a synonym to chose from. Or a small group of friends willing to help you choose the right word and not the spurious ones.