On the Use of Less Common Words

arctic hares

Does it bother you to encounter an unfamiliar word when you are reading? How about in conversation?

I’m one of those people who enjoy using uncommon words. I savor conversations where people naturally incorporate words one rarely hears. I rejoice when I encounter a new word that precisely describes some elusive essence that formerly required a paragraph to explain.

I can illustrate that final comment—welcoming words that define hard to describe nuances—with a couple of examples. Angst and ephemeral were the first two such words that came to my mind just now, and momentarily I will offer passages in which C.S. Lewis uses each of them.

One is “angst.” It’s more than worry. It’s darker than anxiety. It conveys in many cases an air of foreboding. We can thank the Germans for angst (the word, not the dread itself).

Another too seldom used word would be “ephemeral.” In essence it means temporary or transitory. But it often conveys a sense of loss, of the passing of something before its due time. It suggests the dissolution of something we would wish to examine in greater detail. Ephemeral suggests something far more emotionally weighty than its original Greek, which translates into “lasting only a day.”

Narrowly defined or focused words, are like a sort of communication shorthand. They are useful for getting messages across more rapidly, and with greater accuracy. For example, it would be of little value for one Inuit to describe a location to another by saying it was covered with “snow.” If they intend to travel there, it would be beneficial to know in advance what kind of snow to anticipate.

Due to this unforgiving environment, the Inuktitut (the dialect spoken in the eastern part of the Canadian arctic) have a score of different words referring to snow and ice. This fascinating article addresses the subject and illustrates how this word group is supplemented by additional words which, when used in a winter context, mean a particular type of snow.

In Nunavik, for instance, it is possible to call maujaq the snow in which one sinks. This is a general term that refers to any type of soft ground (mud, wetland, quicksand) but which, in winter, can only apply to a soft snow cover where the foot sinks.

In the same way, the word illusaq (“what can become a house”) refers to any construction material (wood, stone, brick, etc.), but when an igloo is built, it applies precisely to snow that is rigid and maneuverable enough for erecting a semi-spherical house made of snow blocks.

While the native peoples of the Arctic possess many words for atmospheric water vapor that has been frozen into ice crystals, there are not quite one hundred, as some have parodied.

On the other end of the geographic spectrum, there are many human beings who will never in their entire lives see snow. Think non-mountainous equatorial settings that escaped even the Ice Age. For them, a single word is probably sufficient for the theoretically existent snow, and only one word required for the precious commodity ice, which is most frequently encountered in the shape of a cube.

I am not a skier, so I claim no philological expertise on snow slang where I live in Washington State. The snow we enjoy near Hood Canal comes and goes in a couple of days, several times each winter. Perfect for sledding or building snowpeople with the grandkids. Yet even here we readily recognize several types of snow. Wet snow makes deadly spheres for snowball wars. Powder is less suitable as a construction material, but it offers a slippery track for racing downhill sledding. Packed snow transforms into ice, and makes driving hazardous. Slush is, well . . . slushy.

Not All Words are Worthy of Inclusion

One simple way to expand our vocabulary is by subscribing to a “Word of the Day” service. More often than not, I already know the day’s offering, but occasionally it’s pleasant to be reminded of such things.

Then there are those words that are so peculiar or restrictive that we can’t consciously conceive of using them. Such was a word I received this week: “appurtenance.” I applaud you if you know it. I commiserate with your friends if you employ it.

One of appurtenance’s synonyms is “paraphernalia.” That was a fine word in and of itself, until it because too strongly associated with illegal narcotics. I guess if I elect not to use “appurtenance,” and regard “paraphernalia” as contaminated, I’ll simply need to retreat to the fallback word of my youth, “stuff.”

Today’s word was even less useful. “Sternutation” is the involuntary expulsion of air through the nose. Might be good for a bunch of junior high school boys, but I don’t think I’ll file it away for my next novel.

C.S. Lewis’ Use of Precise Prose

The best, and most gratifying way to expand our vocabularies is by reading. I never resent reading a great book or stimulating essay that sends me to my dictionary.

As I promised, I am including examples of Lewis’ use of the words I had randomly selected to illustrate my point above. As a bonus, I’m including two examples of ephemeral, reflecting both senses of the word’s meaning.

From C.S. Lewis’ essay “Sir Walter Scott” which appears in Selected Literary Essays:

For the whole of that Gurnal, indeed, we might borrow a title from an author whom Scott himself fully appreciated, and call it ‘Sense and Sensibility’. The sense, I presume, is obvious enough. We see it, first and foremost, in his cool and moderate estimate of his own literary powers; a modesty almost (one would have thought) impossible in one whose reputation had filled Europe and been blown up until he was put above Goethe and almost equalled with Shakespeare. Yet it is not mere self-depreciation.

Though never deceived about his weaknesses, he knows his real strength too; the “hurried frankness of composition which pleases soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold and active disposition.” He recognizes, in his own way, the quality of what a more pretentious writer would call “inspiration:”—“I shall get warm as I work”— the morning, fresh from the labours of subconscious artistry, is musis amica. We see it also in his unchanging, cheerfully unemphatic, contempt for ‘the imaginary consequence of literary triflers’ and the ‘affectations of literature . . .”

But we should do Scott little service with some modern critics by insisting exclusively on his sense; for there is a widespread opinion that genius is never free from neurosis, and unless we can find Angst in an author’s soul he will hardly be taken seriously. Well, if we demand Angst, Scott can supply that, too. He confesses to “idle fears, gloomy thoughts” (1826); to “A thick throbbing at my heart . . . fancies thronging on me . . . a disposition . . . to think on things melancholy and horrible.” (1827).

Ephemeral as brief, in a 1959 letter where Lewis rejects the proposed title for one of his volumes:

Dear Mac, Thanks for your letter of the 18th. I don’t care for Dangers of Belief. I would like The World’s Last Night and other Essays. The and other essays would appear on the title page only—not on spine, back, or jacket. For No. IV I should prefer Good Work and Good Works. As soon as I can get it typed I shall send you a long correction for Lilies that Fester. . . .

It will replace the bit which in the Twentieth Century article begins ‘About Culture as’ (para 3, p 332) and ends ‘to extraneous ends,’ (para 2, l. 3, p. 334). This is necessary because E. M. Forster has said in print that he really meant the alternative ‘b’ which I offered him in a footnote to p 333.113.

Most of the passage I want to alter is therefore now irrelevant. And anyway I think that what I want to substitute for it is better and of less ephemeral interest. O.K.?

In the final volume of his space (cosmic) trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis refers to celestial spiritual forces. Some of them are associated with stars and planets. The Oyéresu (unfallen angelic rulers) who serve God, their Creator. If you are unfamiliar with the book, don’t try to understand the meaning of what follows. Simply allow the power of Lewis’ narrative to paint an imposing scene.

[The freezing temperature evoked a progression of thoughts]: of stiff grass, hen roosts, dark places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the sun’s dying, the Earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars. And then, not even stars: the heat death of the universe, utter and final blackness of nonentity from which Nature knows no return. . . .

Saturn, whose name in the heavens is Lurga, stood in the Blue Room. His spirit lay upon the house, or even on the whole Earth, with a cold pressure such as might flatten the very orb of Tellus to a wafer. Matched against the lead-like burden of his antiquity the other gods themselves perhaps felt young and ephemeral.

It was a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight, not to eternity where the thought can rest, but into more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.

It was also strong like a mountain; its age was no mere morass of time where imagination can sink in reverie, but a living, self-remembering duration which repelled lighter intelligences from its structure as granite flings back waves, itself unwithered and undecayed but able to wither any who approach it unadvised.

Reading Lewis is an education in many things. Many years after his death he continues to teach receptive minds about writing, creativity, communication, rational thinking, Christian living, and so very much more.

If you are curious about an author who actually contributed to C.S. Lewis’ own vocabulary, check out this column.

14 thoughts on “On the Use of Less Common Words

  1. Dennis Splett

    A whirlwind of thoughts and concepts. It seems to be believed by some that “good writing”, in literature if not in technical writing, is that which constantly switches the direction of the mind in order to move it down the path to a destination which is always straight ahead. Are we able to justify this concept by calling it Mental Exercise?

    1. That’s an interesting concept, which I’ve never encountered before. The image that came to my mind was the “switchbacks” that we negotiate when climbing a mountain. What would be insurmountable via straight forward onslaught, is rendered accessible.

      As a process that by its nature takes more time and explores more terrain, it would certainly offer increased opportunities to learn… making it, in a sense, an “exercise” that would build one’s mental muscles.

      The shortcoming in consciously writing this way is that while it might be profitable to some, it would be terribly frustrating (and even boring) to those who are already “fit” enough to assault the peak via a steeper route.

  2. From just these clips I see I would not waste my time reading Lewis. The written word and the spoken word in general are part of language. Language is used to communicate. With these writings I wonder to whom Lewis is communicating. Words and thought here are arranged in some form of algebraic concoction so I come up short unable to do even 8th grade algebra. My English professors would have given me F’s for my inadequate attempt to write commentary of Lewis. I probably would not get through the commentaries on commentary of him. Perhaps it’s me. On the other hand I can read Homer, Shakespeare, Voltaire and Chaucer and if I feel like spending half an hour per page absorbing Calvin. Of course with Calvin it is beyond convoluted sentence structure. It’s that each page is pregnant with so many thoughts and possibilities.

    1. Carl, it’s not fair to Lewis that I pulled these quotations out of their context. The first, literary criticism, is just barely long enough to give a sense of his thought on the man.

      However, the second is from a random letter, which you can’t expect to carry much coherent meaning when you don’t know what preceded it.

      The final passage is an unmoored piece of a moderately complex scifi volume. Almost impossible to decipher with my inadequate introduction. Still, I think the prose is evocative.

      I believe you need to read Lewis in whole (i.e. a total work) to offer a fair appraisal.

  3. theburningheart

    Very interesting, words are created by a need to express a thing, or an idea, and there are a way of thinking differently according to cultural values, geographical values, and ethnic values, just to cite a few variants, since they may be infinite, words in a way are the repository of our cultural background and heritage, Nations have academies of their language, to protect it, to pass it to future generations,, and enhance it with new words.
    The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as sub-entries
    Spanish has almost 300,000, but there is many variants, a writer may use 3,000 words, Shakespeare on his plays used. 31,534, but 14,376 only appear once, Cervantes in the book of Don Quixote 22,939, but 11,184 are only used once. Goethe near 90,000 on all it’s writings (32 thick volumes), Dante on the Divine Comedy only 12, 831,
    A cultured person it’s supposed to know more than 15,000 words to around 30,000, but Danes are suppose to reach around 70,000, and Chinese 40,000.
    But there is about 3,000 to 5,000 words we use average, meanwhile there is a passive great number of words that we know, but rarely use. :-) .

    1. Interesting statistics. I’m curious whether there are any (free) tools for assessing where an individual fits in such a spectrum. I imagine they would need to analyze a digital “pile” of what a person has written to do that.

      When you mentioned the desire of nations to “protect” their language, my thoughts immediately jumped to France and the way that they actually make certain words “illegal” (e.g. with fines for using them in advertising).

  4. Hi Rob,

    Words are amazing things! Thanks for the reminder that we should always be growing our whole lives. As believers the best way to stay current and fresh. Thanks brother,


  5. Words rock – like infinite colors so you can create just the right phrase, image, mood.
    But you have to see the nuances by nature or by lesson.
    An extensive vocabulary used to be valued and the sign of an educated person. Remember all those “Word a Day” lessons – even calendars. People seem much more visually oriented now – as was predicted when Sesame Street started up long ago. Digital age pushed it more.
    A normal person has multiple vocabularies ones used for speaking, reading, or writing are different – and each of those are subdivided still ( among academic language, career/work related/ with family, with friends…goes on forever if you are into linguistic/literacy/ multilingual acquisition work.) Totally fascinating ..and obvious why people find it so difficult to communicate.
    Cool post

    1. How’d this great comment slip by without me having a chance to respond? Must have arrived during a particularly chaotic time in the Stroud household.

      Yes, words are amazing… and you use them quite skillfully in your own posts on your site. I like the idea about different vocabularies. I use different ones, for example, with people depending on their religious background. I am acutely aware of how a single word–“baptism,” for example–is understood in strongly different ways by people due to their theological tradition. Say that word to a group including Baptists, Roman Catholics, Jews, and Presbyterians, and (without clear definition) you will ensure confusion.

  6. Just have to say how much I enjoy your blogging and other writings. Don’t always take time to read through them, but the two bunnies high fiving deserves a shout out! Thanks for the smiles and edification.

  7. Pingback: Don’t Be a Pirate « Mere Inkling Press

  8. Pingback: Learning New Words « Mere Inkling Press

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