Some people say the most beautiful words in the English language are “I love you”—but I beg to differ.
I realize that by voicing this, I’m relinquishing my claim to traditional romanticism (that sound you might be hearing is my wife laughing; according to her, that claim expired long ago). Still, to avoid controversy, let me call what follows a list of not necessarily the most beautiful, but my favorite words. Most of these selections have to do with what’s pleasing to the ear: the gloss, the cellophane, the symphony, versus the ugliness, the blech, the arrgh.
“Embezzle” and “bedazzle” both appeal to me, though one is a white-collar crime and the other implies the presence of a Bedazzler, more of a rhinestone-collar crime against fashion. Both feature that double-z buzzing sound, which has its own cool name: “bombination”—so both “embezzle” and “bedazzle” might be referred to as abominations with bombination. Not to be confused with North Korea, which given its harsh dictatorial rule, might also be called an abomination, and with their regular missile testings, a bombin’ nation.
“Portmanteau” is a great word that refers to a word made by combining parts of other words. Actual examples of portmanteaus, however—with the possible exception of “chortle”, a personal favorite combining “chuckle” and “snort”—are significantly less attractive: “brunch” (or, even worse, “linner”), “dramedy”, “ginormous”, “televangelist”, “manscaping”, “jeggings”, and the helpfully descriptive, but foul-sounding “cockapoo”.
Words like “cockapoo” tend to be popular with children: “papoose”, “pupa”, and “penal” are other examples of innocent words made humorous by their unfortunate similarity to certain bodily functions, and the inherent hilarity of the letter “p”. When kids have been raised to politely refer to flatulence as “tooting”, the words “tutelage”, “tutor”, and “tutorial” are hysterical. “Gluteus maximus” was moderately funny to my kids until I revealed its definition—an upgrade from anatomical synonyms like “posterior”, “buttocks”, and “derriere.” For the next several days, I lived with what sounded convincingly like pint-size proctology residents.
The adult equivalent—words that just sound funny to me, independent of their meaning—includes the rarely used “quondam”, which means “former” or “at one time”, but makes me think of a prophylactic for ducks. Other words sound like exactly what they mean: a “gasconade” is boastful bragging. So if you’re withstanding a burst of boastful bragging from a gasbag (especially one who’s inordinately proud of his tutelage), you might be suffering through a gasconade.
Some words offer subtle but definite improvements in vocabulary. “Frolic” is so much more descriptive and interesting than “play”, but even better is the less commonly used synonym “gambol”. While I don’t encourage gambling, I am in full support of gamboling for all ages.
One Wednesday in February, I realized that I’m one of a very small minority who enjoys the words Wednesday and February. Here are two words that have, let’s face it, no business being pronounced and/or spelled the way they are. The only visible purpose for preserving them in their current form is to separate the wheat from the chaff of spellers; yet I love both words for their quirkiness, just as I enjoy the mystery of “flammable” and “inflammable” both meaning “flammable”. I’d say the same about “genius” and “ingenious”. Sometimes I pity adults learning English—forget about “i before e except after c”, imagine having to learn that as a prefix, “in” means “not”, except when it’s before flammable or genius; oh, and when it’s alone, “in” still means the opposite of out.
I hate the word “couple”, but I love the words “couple of”. Sightings of “couple of” are rare these days, ever since a few modern grammatical rule-makers decided it should be “a couple dollars” instead of “a couple of dollars”, etc. The new century’s habit of “couple” instead of “couple of” or even “coupla” seems like the kind of change made in a laboratory somewhere, and doesn’t sound natural to me at all. I tried going with the flow for a while, but count me a couple of dollars short of convinced.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a website that features words created to describe feelings that might otherwise leave one speechless, offers the 2013 standout “vellichor”—defined as “the strange wistfulness of used bookstores.” “Petrichor”, though similar-sounding and equally obscure, dates back to 1964, and refers to the smell that follows rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. The strange smell of used bookstores has been called “biblichor”, or, for most of the world, just “musty”.
Two of my favorite words come courtesy of the TV show The Simpsons: “cromulent”, meaning acceptable or fine, and “embiggen”, meaning (duh) to make bigger. I don’t think I’ve ever used either word in print before, so let me just say that watching television is a perfectly cromulent method for embiggening one’s vocabulary.
The word “uproarious” makes me smile, because it’s a word generally used by octogenarians to describe stuff that’s not really uproarious to anyone else. It typically accompanies a French farce, musical comedy, or other Broadway product that’s being passed off as edgier than it really is. Similarly, “preposterous” is a word that vividly brings to mind the comedic image of an overweight, ruddy-faced, too-tightly-dressed 18th century British gentleman expressing outrage—often while hyperventilating. I credit this association to viewing multiple PBS adaptations of the works of Charles Dickens and the romances of Jane Austen.
Speaking once again of romance, “limerence” is a great-sounding word that has a semi-romantic connotation, but limerence is more about infatuation than love, more about obsession than sex, and it’s certainly absent of any trace of humor. You wouldn’t, for example, write a limerick about limerence.
The word “romance” has been so overused and commercialized that, in the search for a beautiful-sounding substitute, I find myself drawn overseas. The French, unsurprisingly, win the prize with amour. English is an amazing language, sometimes claimed to offer a wider vocabulary than any other; “snark” and “barf” are fine, funny little words, and “crapulence” (sickness from overindulgence of food or drink) is another winner. But maybe in America, we need fewer obscure sorrows and more universal joys; less crapulence—pardon my French—and more amour.