Obstreperous Language


© Stella Belikiewicz and used by permission.

Despite my many shortcomings, I do “pride” myself on possessing a rather considerable vocabulary. My 97th percentile score of the GRE* reinforced my impression that I knew a lot about words.

One technique which has increased my vocabulary is to never let an unknown word pass by without making an effort to learn its meaning. This is simple when I’m working at the computer. If I’m unsure of a definition, I immediately look it up in an online dictionary such as this.

Very rarely do I “guess” at a meaning, based upon its context. This mainly occurs if I’m listening to the radio while I’m driving, and I don’t have recourse to a dictionary. Even then I try to impress the new word on my memory so that I can research it when I return home.

The word in this column’s title motivated me to discuss the importance of accurately understanding word definitions. When I encountered “obstreperous,” it rang vague bells of recollection. And, I was able to discern the word’s general meaning from the context of the article. While some readers of Mere Inkling are already familiar with its meaning—and perhaps use it in daily conversations—allow me to share the context in which I encountered it.

I was reading an article in a military journal about the “battle over ballistic missiles” which was fought inside the Air Force as the manned-bombers-only mindset had to be breached so the United States could advance into the ICBM age. The champions of the two positions were two successive Air Force Chiefs of Staff, Thomas White and Curtis LeMay.

White struggled with how to control the obstreperous LeMay. He knew he didn’t have the political power to force LeMay out, nor could he outwait his [Strategic Air Command] chief. LeMay received his fourth star in 1951 at age 44, which made him the youngest four-star U.S. general since Ulysses S. Grant.**

I’m rarely content with possessing an amorphous definition of a word, so I looked it up. My general impressions of its meaning were confirmed, and I added another word to my personal vocabulary. (The fact that I may never use it beyond its appearance in this post is irrelevant.) Here’s the dictionary entry:

ob·strep·er·ous [uhb-strep-er-uhs]


1. resisting control or restraint in a difficult manner; unruly.

2. noisy, clamorous, or boisterous: obstreperous children.

Parents give their children a precious gift by encouraging the growth of their own vocabularies. In the pre-computer days, we had a dictionary not far away when we had dinner, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to find its way to the table during our conversations.

Consciously adding new words to our vocabulary is a skill especially vital to writers.

C.S. Lewis wrote about how common usage of familiar words requires no contextual definition. However, he warns of the danger of accepting subjective “definitions” offered outside the context of credible dictionaries.

When we leave the dictionaries we must view all definitions with grave distrust. It is the greatest simplicity in the world to suppose that when, say, Dryden defines wit or Arnold defines poetry, we can use their definition as evidence of what the word really meant when they wrote.

The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism. Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so. . . .

The word wit will illustrate this. We . . . find old critics giving definitions of it which are contradicted not only by other evidence but out of the critics’ own mouths. Off their guard they can be caught using it in the very sense their definition was contrived to exclude.

A student who should read the critical debate of the seventeenth century on wit under the impression that what the critics say they mean by wit is always, or often, what they really mean by wit would end in total bewilderment.

He must understand that such definitions are purely tactical. They are attempts to appropriate for one side, and to deny to the other, a potent word. You can see the same “war of positions” going on today.

A certain type of writer begins “The essence of poetry is” or “All vulgarity may be defined as,” and then produces a definition which no one ever thought of since the world began, which conforms to no one’s actual usage, and which he himself will probably have forgotten by the end of the month. (Studies in Words)

I find it rather fitting to include this passage from Lewis, with its martial imagery, in a column inspired by a description of a surly advocate of massive nuclear bombing as the best deterrence of World War III.

Writers, particularly those attempting to be persuasive, are wise to ponder Lewis’ wise counsel. We cannot surrender the battlefield to those who would revise the clear and historic meanings of words in an effort “to appropriate for one side, and to deny to the other, a potent word.”


* The Graduate Record Exam is a standardized test used as part of the admission process for many university graduate programs in the United States. We won’t be discussing my mathematics score here . . .

** If the source article interests you, you can read it at Air Force Magazine.

The artwork above is copyrighted by its creator, Stella Belikiewicz, and used with her permission.

13 thoughts on “Obstreperous Language

      1. More than you might imagine! Our pets and farm animals tend to be rather obstreperous (in a nice way), especially our Great Pyrenees dog who thinks she’s a puppy instead of a 110 lb. horse! She’s being very friendly–but obstreperous, nevertheless! There, how’s that? Twice in one day! :)

  1. Referred to this post on my blog hiddeninjesus.wordpress.com in writing about the words I had to look up while reading my niece’s latest book, Scandal Work. She actually uses obstreperous in it, too!

    1. Great coincidence. It’s funny how each person’s vocabulary is truly unique. This word, for instance, was unfamiliar to me since I didn’t encounter it in my normal reading, but I’m sure some people’s reaction is “I can’t believe he didn’t know that!”

  2. Solid thought for wishy-washy vague-for-a-reason times.
    “Obstreperous” was one of my mother’s favorite words. Used daily. Got a giggle seeing it again.
    Have you ever read post by “You knew what I meant” blog – a University writing prof who keeps us amused by examples of her student’s writing efforts: word usage reins!
    Another prize winning post from you!

  3. Your post has been sitting in my inbox a few days. Every time I read “obstreperous” a vague recollection of my parents talking about me when I was very young would come to mind. :-D
    All I knew was it couldn’t be a good term because of their tone. Of course, I got the same impression about “precocious” and “persnickety” as well. It was years before I learned their real definitions.
    I’m afraid I was an amorphous vocabulary developer. It always bugged me when Mom told me to look something up, so I wouldn’t unless forced to. Never ran into any problems until I got married.
    My husband is a math mind who was often confused by my every day language. When he would ask me what a word meant, I realized just how little I really knew about it; all I had was the most common context to stick them in. Luckly, we’d picked up a dictionary to use with Quiddler. It saw a lot of useage that first year!

    1. Interesting. I use the dictionary nearly every day. Not, very often, to learn basic definitions… but often to determine fine shades of meaning and usage. (Well, for that, and to verify the spelling!)

  4. I had a great conversation with a movie theater concession stand attendant recently. He told me where the straws were, and I looked for a little while before finding them, and then I said:
    “Oh, that’s inconspicuous.”
    His face brightened up, and he said “Inconspicuous. That’s a good word. Do you happen to know what ‘pernicious’ means?”
    I gave the best definition I could, off the top of my head, and he beamed and said “Today is a good day.”
    Hurrah for people who love words!

    In a slight answer to Lewis, though, I would argue that sometimes terms are defined merely for use in a specific way in specific instances, and that is not the same as attempting to appropriate them. If there isn’t, to one’s knowledge, and extant word for something one wants to write or talk about, temporarily re-defining a term can be helpful. I admit, though, that sometimes it’s over-done and can actually damage perfectly good words.

    1. What a wonderful interchange. And at a theater, of all places.

      You’re absolutely right about using words in creative contexts to capture aspects of things for which no other word exists. When it’s done well, it’s very impressive.

  5. Pingback: On the Use of Less Common Words « Mere Inkling

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