New Year’s resolutions for word nerds
Happy New Year, word fans! As 2017 dawns bright and clear (or grimy and daunting, depending on your location along the optimism/pessimism spectrum), you are probably signing up for gym memberships or vowing to be better about paying visits to your hoarder uncle. Permit me, though, to suggest a few word-related alternatives to the same old resolutions that you’ve broken every year since Y2K.
Pick a word you never remember, and make yourself remember it.
No, look, I know. If you could remember it you’d have just remembered it already! But this is my proposal: make a list of twelve of those words like plangent or otiose, the meaning of which you absolutely do know but simply can’t dig out of working memory when the occasion calls for it. Assign one of those words to each month of 2017 and learn it properly. Plangent (I had to look it up. Again.) means this:
Construct a few sentences that use the word plangent, and find the nearest occasion to say one of them in conversation. Do this twice or thrice in the month assigned to plangent. Admittedly, your friends-and-relations may say “Oh, have you got one of those word-a-day calendars for Christmas, Jenny?” You will, however, be able to joyously report that you received no such thing. You are a vocabulary wizard.
(Or, of course, you could be a Good Words Samaritan and tell your friends-and-relations about your resolution and possibly inspire them to do likewise. We’re all going to learn the word plangent this year.)
Finally give up the battle to make literally mean literally.
This is the resolution that I am going to find personally very challenging. I understand that the battle has been lost. I do. Though in theory I am a grammar descriptivist, my inconstant heart harbors prescriptivist rage towards the ever-expanding mob (including my own sister, my own sister) that use literally as a bog-standard intensifier. But here it is. The Oxford English Dictionary has made the pronouncement.
If it helps, there is this thing called the hyperbole treadmill that means we are perpetually on the hunt for new, piquant intensifiers. Pretty soon our culture will tire of literally, and then if you fail at this New Year’s Resolution (I already know I am going to), you can at least take comfort in knowing that you won’t have too terribly long before it dips in frequency and some new thing takes it places.
You also have before you the nuclear option: start using literally as an intensifier yourself. You will quickly become defensive and descriptivist about it, because you’ll be defending your own verbal turf.
Follow a linguist on social media.
If you are currently thinking ‘that hyperbole treadmill concept from a moment ago was very slick’, you will love my third proposed resolution. I stole that phrase from a linguist, who adapted it from Steven Pinker’s concept of a ‘euphemism treadmill’. Linguists are positively the coolest people to follow on social media. They share fascinating articles that teach you about how language trends develop and spread. They analyze the linguistic principles behind relationship portmanteaux like Drarry and Brangelina. They describe and name phenomena that you know by instinct but have never considered describing and naming—and why would you? There are linguists who will do it for you!
I will get you started with a few recommendations. Gretchen McCulloch, author of the above-linked portmanteaux article, has the job of Internet linguist and a book under contract about Internet language that I will read ten times. Lynne Murphy runs a blog called Separated by a Common Language where she identifies different words that have the same meaning and different meanings that have the same word. She notably blew my mind out of the back of my skull (literally!) (oh God it burns) earlier this year by reporting that some people believe a frown is located not in one’s mouth but in one’s forehead.
Learn how to pronounce words you’ve only seen written.
When I was seventeen, my clever friend Erin said the word respite, and I corrected her. I said, ‘Respite. Re. Spite’. If you have read Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ or lived in the English-speaking world for a while, you are probably aware that this is wrong. It’s pronounced, bewilderingly, REH-spit. This memory still fills me with shame. I can’t believe I’m telling the Internet about it.
My final resolution, therefore, is a shame-avoidance tactic as much as anything else. When words like piquant and chthonic and macabre come across your desk, words that you’ve seen written dozens of times but never said aloud because you fear being wrong, take a moment to look them up in the dictionary and sort out how to say them. This has the added benefit that by the end of the year you will be au courant with the International Phonetic Alphabet.
The OED also has a handy audio feature that permits subscribers to click the blue arrow and hear the possible pronunciation. I rejoice to report that I’ve been doing macabre right all along. See? We’ve already embarked on this journey together!