Archives For Vocabulary

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There is something to be said for brevity. But I won’t belabor that here.

In an essay entitled “Before We Can Communicate,” C.S. Lewis explores the frequently overlooked necessity of using commonly agreed upon definitions. He cites examples where apparent disagreement could be traced to differing assumptions about how others would interpret a given word.

We’ve all experienced that sort of confusion and if emotions become involved in the dispute, it can result in more than simple frustration.

As a military chaplain, working in an extremely diverse and pluralistic environment, I devoted much attention to communicating clearly. As an example, when dealing with “theological matters,” I always inquired into the religious background of the person with whom I was speaking.

I did not do so with the intention of altering an iota of the conversation that followed. I learned early on that the religious training each person received carried with it a sort of doctrinal dictionary, where the words carried particular meaning. One problematic example is “baptism,” which means something quite different for different parts of Christ’s Body. When focusing on communication, the question is not which understanding is most biblical. It is, what does the word mean in its present usage in this conversation.

In Lewis’ essay on communication, he describes something that should be a core skill of every pastor.

What we want to see in every ordination exam is a compulsory paper on (simply) translation; a passage from some theological work to be turned into plain vernacular English. Just turned; not adorned, nor diluted, nor made “matey.”

The exercise is very like doing Latin prose. Instead of saying, “How would Cicero have said that?” you have to ask yourself, “How would my scout or bedmaker have said that?”

Lewis cites multiple benefits from this effort. Foremost among them is the usefulness of a commonly understood vocabulary, which he refers to as “learned language.”

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity.

It can say in ten words what popular speech can hardly get into a hundred. Your popularisation of the passage set will have to be very much longer than the original. And this we must just put up with.

People who know (and love) me, consider me wordy. I confess to the crime. But in my defense, I declare that with misunderstandings resulting from even the simplest conversations, I strive to dispel as thoroughly as possible, all clouds of potential confusion.

A Note on the Future of Mere Inkling

As is natural in dynamic or living things, such as active blogs, change naturally occurs over time. Such drifting, or even radical alteration, is normal. While altering course results from a conscious decision, drift typically takes place subtly, and slowly.

Over the past year or two, the columns posted here at Mere Inkling have grown in length. While this has allowed for deeper exposition of complex subjects, and a more nuanced treatment of C.S. Lewis’ contributions to the ideas discussed, the increased length has had other unhappy consequences.

The first is that it has, I believe, modestly decreased the readership of Mere Inkling. The internet, by its very nature, favors shorter treatments, and that is a simple truism. Combined with our rapidly decreasing attention spans, an online writer must consciously weigh the tradeoffs.

The second reason is that it takes significantly longer to write a more thorough “essay.” Increasing demands on my time have made the “long form” posting more of a hardship.

So, in light of these considerations, it is my desire to return Mere Inkling to its roots. I will endeavor to keep the posts shorter—along the lines of today’s column above this “note.”

I hope this minor reorientation will be welcomed by you, dear member of the Mere Inkling family.

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.

csl sayersCan you imagine receiving a compliment like this from C.S. Lewis? Your work “even enlarged my vocabulary.”

Shocking . . . but another writer did receive that rare praise.

In 1954, Lewis wrote a lengthy letter to his friend Dorothy Sayers, praising her recent publication of Introductory Papers on Dante. Lewis’ opening sentence reveals his delight. “Your Introductory Papers have given me a regular feast.”

Lewis specifically comments on a number of insights he found particularly worthwhile. And remember, Lewis was an expert on Dante in his own right.

One evidence that Lewis’ praise is sincere, and not mere flattery, comes in his comment that “every essay and nearly every page enriched me.” Not every page, mind you, but very nearly every one of them.

Offering Gentle Criticism

Consistent with the nature of friendly literary criticism (like one receives in a healthy writers group), Lewis does offer some specific advice on how to strengthen a specific point that he regards as overemphasized. In this case it relates to a classical Latin phrase.

At one point Lewis expresses awe about a portion of the book, and then immediately proceeds to make an enjoyable comment about the limitations of the English language.

P. 52 is a blaze of (just) splendour. (Drat our homophones: by just I don’t mean ‘nothing but,’ I mean ‘justified,’ ‘veracious.’)

Toward the close of his letter, Lewis raises a profound notion about our perception of humor. He cautions Sayers, in her interpretation of Dante’s Comedy, not to read it directly through the lens of our own day. “I’ve a feeling that in handling particular passages you are too certain that whatever is comic to us was, and was meant to be, comic at the time.” He continues:

Because, as any one can see even from the old Punches,* nothing changes so quickly as the sense of humour: so that in reading any old book there is nothing we are less sure of than which places wd. welcome a smile. And oughtn’t we to start by a recognition that our generation (yours & mine) was quite abnormally ‘tickle o’ the sere’** (already the young people are less so).

A Poetic Postscript

Lewis ends his letter to Sayers with some advice for her subsequent work with Dante. He courteously writes, “Don’t give me the next set, I’ll buy it.”

Then he makes a suggestion to protect her from the spurious criticisms of ignorant literary critics. (Note that he doesn’t use the choice descriptive in a vulgar sense common today, but in more classical sense of extreme foolishness.)

And do put in an essay on D. as ‘poet’ in the old, narrowest sense—his sheer poeticalness. Otherwise we shall have some ass saying that because you like so many other qualities, you are oblivious to that.

_____

* Punch Magazine was published in England until 1992. The 1881 image below is inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and applied to the violence in Ireland.

** Easily made to laugh. From Hamlet: “The clown shall makes those laugh whose lungs are tickle o’ the sere.” The seare, or sere, was part of the trigger of old matchlock guns, so arranged that the slightest movement would make the gun discharge. Lungs, then, “tickle o’ the sere,” are those easily moved to laughter.

punch dante

Thesaurus Club

April 24, 2014 — 12 Comments

thesaurus club“The first rule is: If this is your first night at Thesaurus Club, you have to synonymize!”

“The second rule of Thesaurus Club is: You don’t talk about, mention, comment on, allude to, speak of, discuss, converse about, whisper of, gossip about, or chat or chinwag about Thesaurus Club!”

Only a true logophile (word lover) could enjoy the scene described above . . . but if you’re as captivated as I am by wordplay, you may appreciate the creativity. Of course, understanding the reference to the film Fight Club reveals more clearly its wit.

Words are fun to play with.

Although we tend to think of cartoonists as artists, the fact is they are usually just as skillful in their artistry with words. (The successful ones, at least.)

Not long ago I saw a single panel cartoon showing a seated man in a suit addressing a secretary, steno pad in hand. Nothing funny about the picture, of course, but the caption said, “One more thing: Remember to introduce me as a lawyer, not a liar.” Nice.

Even funnier if you think about synonyms. (No offense intended to Mere Inkling’s readers who are attorneys.)

Words are powerful. But they are also finite. C.S. Lewis noted their limits in an essay entitled “Prudery and Philology.”

We are sometimes told that everything in the world can come into literature. This is perhaps true in some sense. But it is a dangerous truth unless we balance it with the statement that nothing can go into literature except words, or (if you prefer) that nothing can go in except by becoming words. And words, like every other medium, have their own proper powers and limitations.

Lewis was quite sensitive to the abuse of language. It doesn’t require a graduate degree to know what he would think of today’s word processing programs with their built in thesauri.

No doubt these fingertip resources have contributed immensely to the modern proclivity of many writers to write artificial prose. I’m confident Lewis would have mourned their creation.

That’s precisely why joining the Thesaurus Club would be so daunting. There you stand, stripped of your ever-present literary crutches, proving just what you’re made of. Will you find victory (triumph, success) or will you taste defeat (downfall, failure)?

_____

I wish I could take credit for the concept at the top of this page, but I stumbled upon the notion elsewhere and modified it for Mere Inkling. (I did make the graphic, though.)

Unintentional Acrostics

March 10, 2014 — 14 Comments

letterSome writers sweat to find precisely the right word, the one that expresses the unique meaning and tone we seek to convey. We often fail, as the reference to perspiration in my first sentence readily reveals. A recent observation from the executive editor of First Things  provides me with another crippling concern.

“This for those interested in how magazines work. My son Christopher pointed out that the initial capital letters on a two-page spread . . . spelled “a wit.” Which was kind of nice. Accidental, but nice. And then I thought: Suppose some day we accidentally spelled out a rude four-letter word? Now, after the magazine is laid out, one of the junior fellows reads through the magazine to make sure we haven’t accidentally made a word that will embarrass us. It’s a small thing, and probably paranoid, but here paranoia equals prudence.”

Unless each writer maintains constant vigilance, since most of us don’t have “junior fellows” to assign the duty, it’s quite possible for unintentional acrostics to slip into our work. Like the seamen in the crow’s nest of the Titanic—I just watched a new documentary on the subject last night—we can easily miss the veiled iceberg which threatens to sink our best effort.

Prone as we are to playing with the depths of individual words, we are normally sensitive to the fact more than 90% of a word’s value in a particular context may lie beneath the surface. That does not mean, however, that we always see the larger picture.

It is not uncommon for a writer to become almost paralyzed while composing something, when the ideal word continues to elude us. It is almost “literally” painful to have to settle for a substitute, when we suspect the perfect word is floating somewhere just beyond our reach.

Dodging mundane words is not easy. They are common, in part at least, because they are so simple and easy to plug into sentences. And so, we “go” to the store, when we might just as easily “drive,” “walk,” “ride,” or even “hitchhike.” A movie is described as “good,” when readers would value a vivid word, such as, “suspenseful,” “hilarious,” “complex,” “moving,” or even “groundbreaking.”

Reflections on the Psalms, one of C.S. Lewis’ gems, explores the beauty of the Bible’s hymnal. “The Psalms,” he notes, “are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.” Because of this, they have nourished the worship lives of Jew and Christian alike, for thousands of years.

Even without a theological education, Lewis offers great insight into the Psalms. “I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.” He candidly discusses passages he initially found difficult to embrace, as well as those which soar to spiritual and poetic heights. The following comes from his discussion of Psalm 119, which is skillfully composed around an alphabetic acrostic.

“As everyone knows, the Psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection. And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point of view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all. The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statutes, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections—which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet. . . . this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.”

Done like embroidery, stitch by stitch.” Many writers, I suspect, will appreciate that description. While we are sometimes forced to throw something together in a rush, the patchwork results offend our sensitivities.

Even when writing rather pedestrian things like much of our email correspondence, most writers seek to employ lively verbiage. It’s a valuable exercise, after all, to consider the pace of all of our work, and not simply those words we hope to see “published.” And, having written something worth reading, there is one more consideration.

Reviewing what we have written is well worth the time required. And, as Editor David Mills suggested in First Things, our examination should include any unintentional acrostics we may have created. After all, no respectable writer would ever wish to, even accidentally, offend their readers.

Vampire Poetry

February 19, 2014 — 13 Comments

vpoetryI was afraid to read it. I had just listened to the poem during an online newscast, and it included it so many jarring and disturbing images that I thought I must have misheard it.

Then again, it was written by a successful Hollywood star, so it certainly must be worthy of publication.

So, motivated by two impulses, I sought out the text. My first reason was that I did not wish to misjudge the writer, based on my shallow initial impression. The second was that I really did want to discover if it was as odd as I perceived it to be.

It is from the heart and pen of Kristen Stewart, who played the leading role in the Twilight series. It is described as a “love poem,” which is helpful to know in advance . . . since that might not be how one might inadvisably approach it.

I reared digital moonlight

You read its clock, scrawled neon across that black

Kismetly . . . ubiquitously crest fallen

Thrown down to strafe your foothills

. . . I’ll suck the bones pretty.

Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps

Spray painted everything known to man,

Stream rushed through and all out into

Something Whilst the crackling stare down sun snuck

Through our windows boarded up

He hit your flint face and it sparked.

And I bellowed and you parked

We reached Marfa.

One honest day up on this freedom pole

Devils not done digging

He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle

And this pining erosion is getting dust in

My eyes

And I’m drunk on your morsels

And so I look down the line

Your every twitch hand drum salute

Salutes mine . . .

Overwhelming. I was actually tempted to use the word “pretentious,” until I read the following note about the magazine interview during which she shared the verse.

Before reading the poem, Kristen told the mag, “I don’t want to sound so f—ing utterly pretentious…but after I write something, I go, ‘Holy f—, that’s crazy.’ It’s the same thing with acting: If I do a good scene, I’m always like, ‘Whoa, that’s really dope.’”

After seeing that comment, with its sadly limited vocabulary, I can picture her composing her poetry dictionary and thesaurus in hand.

The poem’s significance takes a moment to sink into one’s mind . . . even if our brains are not clouded by being drunk on someone’s morsels. The poem is, in fact, so rich in meaning that it required two distinct titles: “Freedom Pole” and “My Heart is a Wiffle Ball.”

I dabble in poetry, but don’t consider myself a poet. So, I’m probably not the one to judge.

I would be curious to know what the newest addition to the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey would think of Stewart’s work. C.S. Lewis wrote poetry himself, of course, although he is much better known for his other literary contributions.

In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis describes the poetry of Samuel Daniel. “Though Daniel’s poetry is often uninspired, sometimes obscure, and not seldom simply bad, he has two strong claims on our respect.” I wonder if Lewis’ gracious nature might lead him to discern two strengths in Stewart’s poetic corpus.

In contrast to the previous evaluation, Lewis considered the poetry of Dante Alighieri to be masterful. In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis writes:

I think Dante’s poetry, on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read: yet when it is at its highest pitch of excellence, I hardly feel that Dante has very much to do. . . . I draw the conclusion that the highest reach of the whole poetic art turns out to be a kind of abdication, and is attained when the whole image of the world the poet sees has entered so deeply into his mind that henceforth he has only to get himself out of the way, to let the seas roll and the mountains shake their leaves or the light shine and the spheres revolve, and all this will be poetry, not things you write poetry about.

Dare I confess that after Dante even Shakespeare seems to me a little factitious? It almost sounds as if he were “just making it up.” But one cannot feel that about Dante even when one has stopped reading him.

That’s the sort of verse that poets should always strive for—“the highest reach of the whole poetic art [which] turns out to be a kind of abdication.” Word dabblers such as myself are unlikely to ever attain such a lofty goal.

It may be that Stewart has kismetly attained these heights. But then again, perhaps she still has a little farther to travel before she reaches Marfa.

Obstreperous Language

September 15, 2013 — 13 Comments

obstreperous

© 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]

adjective

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.