Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”
After deciding on this topic, I spent hours combing through my favorite books looking for words that were interesting without being obvious (ethereal), clichéd (petrichor), or overly pious (sacramental). I thought it’d be easy, but I kept running into enchanting phrases rather than individual words. Neither word in T. S. Eliot’s great phrase “significant soil,” for example, is particularly interesting on its own. But I eventually managed to find ten words whose sounds, histories, or meanings seem—to me, at least—to say something truthful about the world.
You don’t often expect to find onomatopoeia in long, Latinate words. But this word really does sound like you’re starting a fire: the first syllable is the lit match and the second is the kindling alight. And rather than a quick eruption, the last three syllables settle into a steady blaze that refuses to go out.
This is not exactly a versatile word—in fact, it’s impossible to use without sounding like the King James Bible (or, by extension, Handel’s Messiah). Like incendiary, it has a mild first syllable that gives way to an explosion; you can almost hear God tearing apart the earth or the primal waters or the chains of the imprisoned.
I went back and forth between mist and dust. They’re both simultaneously earthy and airy: you can’t ignore their presence while they’re around, but they can dissipate at any minute. Just like that lovely -st sound: a long, hissing sibilant that dissolves suddenly but quietly when the t arrives. I settled on mist because it’s much more pleasant to walk (if not drive) through, and also because it’s a mere vowel sound away from everyone’s least favorite word, moist.
Our linguistic and cultural connection to ancient Greece is a bit overblown, but it’s also undeniable. It’s why we use the Greek name for a specific island-happy sea (the Aegean, known to Greeks as the Great Sea, or archi-pelago) to name any group of islands. …Or is it? Despite its Greek roots, the word archipelago appears nowhere in Greek before the late Middle Ages, when it was borrowed from a Romance language. It appears first in medieval Italian with the spelling arcipelago; the ch was introduced later, likely to make it look more Greek. And in addition to providing a fun object lesson in medieval linguistics, it’s also just dang fun to say.
“Like a big rock.” I love this word because it’s so seldom the right one. Few things are as solid and unchanging as a big rock: not the “monolithic” medieval church, not the “monolithic” European Union, not the “monolithic” Great Pyramid of Giza. To call these things monolithic is to erase not only their internal complexity but also their reliance on constant maintenance and re-creation. And, of course, change comes to big rocks in the form of erosion, earthquakes, and graffiti. Not even monoliths are monolithic.
This word sounds okay, but the real magic is in its meaning. It comes from the Dutch word vracht (“ship’s cargo”), and is related to our noun freight. When someone describes a conversation or political issue as “fraught,” I imagine it as the engine of a huge freight train, unstoppably bringing load after load of earth-killing crap along for the ride.
Borrowed from an incomprehensible book—James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake—to name an incomprehensible thing. Quarks are the tiniest possible bits of matter, composing the things that compose the things that are called “indivisible” (atomos in Greek). They fall into weird categories called “flavors”—up, down, top, bottom, strange, charm—that have no relationship to these words’ usual meanings. They have fractional electric charge, and they “spin” even though they don’t really take up any space. They deserve a word that sounds like a drunk duck.
In addition to its pleasant consonant clusters, I love the way this word can affirm the intricacy and worth of all kinds of work. When you call something a craft—whether it’s writing or knitting, bricklaying or governing, playing music or cleaning bathrooms—you draw attention to the carefully acquired skills of the craftsperson. You center the work, not its market value. (Stay tuned for my upcoming monograph, Anti-Capitalism and Old English Lexicography.)
Latin for “essence” (kinda) or “whatness” (more literally). It always sounds to me like something Lewis Carroll made up, and I was delighted to find out that Vladimir Nabokov thought the same thing.
In medieval cosmology, the earth and its four elements were separated from the heavenly ether by the Moon’s sphere. I learned this word from John Donne, who writes that “Dull sublunary lovers’ love / (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit / Absence.” To be below the Moon is to be material, temporal, reliant on the senses. But if we were not sublunary, we would lose out on gazing at the Moon. We’d lose out on that little bit of reflected sunlight that is sometimes all we need, or all we can handle. (Of course, if Elon Musk has anything to say about it, we may not be sublunary for much longer.)
Bonus round! My top five least favorite words:
5. intentional: Almost as overused (in Christian circles especially) as “season” or “engage,” and it always leaves me asking what exactly you’re intending to do.
4. indefatigable: It has too many syllables, and it’s almost impossible to guess the meaning if you don’t already know it.
3. blanched: Specifically when predicated of a human (e.g. “Bob blanched at the suggestion”). Because it makes Bob sound like a potato.
2. penetrate: No matter how metaphorical you think you’re being, this word refuses to sound non-sexual (see also seminal).
1. milieu: Without fail, you can use the word context instead and avoid sounding like there’s motor oil spilling out of your mouth.