Reflections on language by… Zadie Smith
The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus included sections labelled ‘reflections’ by some notable writers, including Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Joshua Ferris. In the first of an occasional series looking at these reflections, we’ve excerpted Zadie Smith’s thoughts about various words. All the extracts below are by Zadie Smith, and can be found in the US synonyms section of OxfordDictionaries.com.
When using this word it is essential to remember that it is completely bourgeois to say of something or someone, “How bourgeois.” If you do not mind this inference, then the word is at your disposal.
Cernuous (under droopy)
Quite often writers find themselves in need of an adjective to describe the eloquent curve of such varied items as bent-over old men (and their beards), bowed trees and bowing servants, an attack of impotence, wilting flowers, and so on. Too often drooping is resorted to here. Why not use instead this sonorous mid-17th-century word, chiefly botanical, but perfectly serviceable in all the cases listed above and more. Avoids the insistent comic overtones of droop, adding a touch of dignity to the scene.
An Elizabethan term that might be of use to modern cultural commentators. Meaning ‘enchant, bewitch, fascinate,’ it is an elegant addition to the clutch of terms we usually use to describe the effect our televisions have on us.
Exilient (under exultant)
With this word we could rid the world forever of the phrase jumping for joy, for it means exactly that; a useful synonym for exultant; rapturous. Exilience makes a change from ebullience, and is more specifically concerned with delight, which ebullience (though often used in this way) is not.
This is an excellent synonym for opposite to, facing, and also alongside. It has a secondary discursive usage: ‘with regard to, concerning.’ Before dismissing this word as an arch and archaic poeticism, it should be remembered that it is common in Northern Ireland, used in an everyday way by everyday people. It is one of the many prepositions the English took to Ireland and then forgot to bring home with them when they left. This should be their loss and not the rest of the world’s. Worth attempting in a novel if only to see what happens.
This word describes the optical experience “reddish-yellow.” A frequent color of the sun, many flowers, the dust found on the ground in some towns in the Caribbean, rust, a duck called the fulvous whistling duck native to East Africa, and more peaches than are actually accurately described by the shade “peach.” For these and other reasons, it is a practical word for the travel writer—and other keen observers of the natural world—to have at hand.
A woman who has never given birth to a child. One of the few nouns referring to the sexual/reproductive/aging status of a woman that is not in any way pejorative, simply because it is almost never used. Should be printed on T-shirts.
Orbs reeks of mawkish adolescent poetry in almost every one of its surviving usages, and it is now obsolete in its previously strong astronomical sense—those concentric hollow spheres we once believed surrounded the earth and carried the planets and stars with them in their revolutions. It is never to be used as a synonym for eyes, particularly not in any attempts at feminine flattery unless hilarity is the desired result. Eyes are eyes. Circular and spherical forms are properly orbs, but there’s rarely a compelling reason to call them such.
If it’s good enough for Yeats, it’s good enough for all of us. Familiar to basket-weavers as a synonym for plait, it has also this sweet secondary meaning of both ‘a small puddle’ and ‘stepping into a small puddle.’ Gentler than a splash, and much more appealing.
An ancient word for a contemporary condition. Where pleonexia does the linguistic work that simple greed or avarice does not, is in its diagnosis of a covetousness that is not healthy, that is abnormal. It is a word that needs to be added to the more harmless terms with which we describe the modern consumer. Pleonexia is a heightened and unhealthy condition, as anorexia is the pathological extremity of a brand of asceticism. There is need, then there is desire, then there is greed, and then there is pleonexia.
Pulvinate (under plump)
When seeking adjectives for soft, rounded things—especially on a woman’s body—we too often fall at the first hurdle and choose the very tired Mills and Boon favorite, pillowy. And yet there is a ready-made word for the occasion; Latinate, graceful, specifically intended for things that are cushiony and cushionlike, that swell and bulge. The pulvinated face of a drunk, the pulvinate curve of your lover’s breast… Much better.
Pyrotechnical (under showy)
There is nothing properly wrong with describing a piece of writing or a vocal performance as pyrotechnical. The Oxford English Dictionary patiently lists this usage as the word’s third figurative meaning: “Of wit, rhetoric, etc.: resembling or suggestive of fireworks; brilliant, sensational.” No, there is nothing properly wrong here. But something dies in a piece of figurative language when it is used so frequently and debased so often, and becomes a kind of ‘fudging term,’ standing in for what would otherwise be a lengthier descriptive act. If you mean showy then say showy, and if you mean complex then say that, but if you want to unpick and understand the way a piece of rhetoric works, then pyrotechnical is a very weak adjective indeed.
Sciurine (under squirrel)
Murine, porcine, feline, ursine… all perfectly nice. But the squirrel’s nomenclature has a particular charm. From the Greek skiouros (skia shadow + oura tail), the description is not merely zoological, it is also poetic and descriptively sound. Also, the enjoyments that can be found nailing a human face to its animal double are multiplied with sciurine. Many men look porcine, and many women feline, so many that the description feels cloudy and general. However, a sciurine face is such a specific, singular, and fatal resemblance that the user may conjure up the entire physical character of a person with just this one word.
Sexercise (under exercise)
There is a case for this word replacing exercise altogether. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the secondary meaning of ‘exercise designed to enhance sexual attractiveness or improve sexual performance,’ but it is hard to think of a form of ‘personal exercise’ which aims at anything else. It has a more specific definition, however; that of sexual activity ‘perceived as exercise.’ Of all the pointless mid-twentieth-century additions to our workout vocabularies, this is the most worthy of continuation in the language.
Stillicide (under drop)
Of incredible value to the crime writer or anybody else wishing to build suspense into a landscape, stillicide is the falling of water, especially in drops, or a succession of drops. Inexplicably underused —every day brings a new way to employ it.
Tabagie (under smoke)
French, originally, meaning ‘a group of smokers who meet together in the manner of a club.’ It was just about to go the way of the dodo, but now suddenly a renaissance—in all of the major American cities one can find them once more, a tabagie, huddled together outside bars and workplaces and restaurants, united in suffering under the ban of their favorite activity.
Thole (under endure)
In the northern parts of Britain, particularly Northern Ireland, you can still hear this heartbreaking synonym for allow or permit. It comes into its own in times of trouble, for its strongest meaning is ‘to endure something without complaint or resistance; to be afflicted and to suffer.’ When someone dies in Northern Ireland, it is not uncommon to say to the bereaved “You’ll have to thole,” both as a fact and a consolation.
Vagitus (under cry)
The cry of a newborn baby. Something to add, possibly, to that very short list of questions that must be asked of someone who has just given birth. There is never anything much to say, but you can at least lengthen the period of questions before the awkward silence. Boy or girl? How much did he weigh? What color are his eyes? How loud was his vagitus?