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Copyright ©1996 by Paul Niquette . All rights reserved.
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can tell quite a lot about a person from the words he or
she uses. You
might tell even more from the words he or she does not
use. It would
take longer, though. You would have to listen for words
not said. Like
listening in the forest for the sound of a tree not
falling. Better to
ask a person, "Hey, what words don't you use?"
"What do you want to know for?" they would surely answer.
Have you ever thought about the words you yourself don't use? I did awhile back. It was an introspective revelation. First to mind came the bad words, forbidden in childhood. In my case, however, few of them actually made the list. They're too useful. Vulgarity can become an awful habit, yet there are moments when [expletive deleted] -- well, feels so right. For what it's worth, you know a lot about me already.
Pancake made the list, although it is not a bad word. My late mother had a thing about it. She said the proper word is "hotcake." How arbitrary and inconsequential this seems now! To this day, though, I won't use the word "pancake" -- perhaps in compensation for all those other words I was told not to use and do. "Hotcake," often as not, brings on quizzical expressions. When that happens, I simply change my order to "French toast."
Proscriptions by parents gave way in due course to those of teachers, etc. being an example. There are very few of these on my list. Hah! -- very is the only other one. Which is not to say that I never use the word "very." For some of the words in this memoir (alternative, be, canny... zygote), "seldom" would apply -- very seldom.
Over the years, great social forces have come to bear on vocabularies in general and mine in particular. Thus, overkill died in the fifties, Negro got banished in the sixties, housewife walked out in the seventies. No doubt about it: The life and times of a person can be told in abolished words.
So I thought some more. There are words I have tried to invent (pluplural) -- emphasis on 'tried'; they never caught on. Other words are strangely hard for me to pronounce (eschew). Some seem faddish to me (role model). Some, I am weary of hearing (relationship). There are words on the list that I like (concupiscence) but have to explain all the time. There are words I am not qualified to use (prolix), but my explanation was too long for inclusion here.
Then, too, I commenced thinking about a time long ago when an associate expressed the intention to impress someone. I have forgotten the context altogether, but I vividly remember that there was something I did not like about that word "impress," and, on further reflection, its variants, "impressive" and "impression." I became struck by the idea that whereas Churchill was impressive, so too was Hitler. "Impressive" doesn't really say anything. It sounds phony, too. Something bad can make a good impression and vice versa. Thus, there came to be a philosophical basis for my displeasure with that word. I decided I didn't ever want to be impressed, and so, as a matter of principle, I would never set about to impress.
Words are living, evolving creatures. They are born and grow; they migrate and change; they age and die. Some are killed in their prime (viable). A word can get mispronounced (ignominy), distorted (hubris), and stretched (threat). There are words that have been stretched beyond their elastic limits -- unbelievable -- and have lost their meanings.
Words can be noble or iniquitous, generous or cheap, flamboyant or timid. They describe, they express, they limit, they mislead. In the wild, words, like other living things, must compete. In the English Language, there are what? -- 40,000 words, give or take? All are freely available to be used, yet nobody uses them all.
Which words live is a matter of "natural selection" (I'll borrow a few Darwinian concepts, if you don't mind). There are "mutations" and "extinctions." Some words survive only in the thesaurus, the verbal equivalent of a zoo. Vocabularies act as limited verbal "habitats"; synonyms are rivals for "space." Once ensconced in a vocabulary, each word must still compete daily for slots in speech production. Sentences are transient battlegrounds that test the agility, the vitality -- all right, the fitness -- of competing expressions. In the environment of words, there is indeed a "struggle for existence."
Our verbal freedoms do not include selecting exactly the correct word for every occasion -- unless one makes the effort to know all the words in the English language. We humans do have one absolute power, though. Each person gets to select exactly which words not to use. That is a matter of pure volition, the most beautiful word in any language and the theme for this book..
You too may choose to throw away
worn-out, wearisome expressions,
to expunge misleading terms, to apply philosophical
discriminants and aesthetic
judgements. Make your own private list. You can tell
quite a lot about
yourself from the words you don't use.