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A few words on . . . well, words - Clay Wilson

Words are ubiquitous. Journalism experts would say one shouldn't use a word like ubiquitous in a column, because we are supposed to write to an eighth-grade reading level n and how many eighth graders know what ubiquitous means?

(Incidentally, according to Webster's Dictionary, "ubiquitous" means "existing everywhere" or "inescapable.")

Perhaps the ubiquity of words explains why I like them so much. Or, more likely, my fondness for words explains my being in the newspaper business.

In recent weeks one of my friends has picked up on my word mania. She's a writer, too, and seems to enjoy the fact that I sprinkle my conversation with words that are no longer common in the parlance of the times.

I like to say a somewhat archaic word and then announce, "We don't use that word enough any more." A case in point is "pilfer," which means "to steal secretly, in small amounts."

Recently I used "pilfer" - quite naturally, I thought, - to refer to the fact that my roommate had taken one of my frozen dinners without authorization. I also used "waft," which means "to float, as on the wind."

My use of these words has become the subject of much mirth (we don't use that word enough any more) between my roommate, the aforementioned friend and me. All three of us now throw "pilfer" and "waft" around casually, frankly probably abusing their meanings some of the time.

But I can't help it. I just like words. Words are important. I know the old saw goes that "a picture is worth a thousand words," but if someone wants to describe a picture to someone else, what is he going to use? Words.

If someone wants to say how a picture makes him feel, what is he going to use? Words. If someone wants to tell the photo lab technician that he did a lousy job processing the film for a picture, what is he going to use?

I think I've made my point.

It's always difficult for me to look up a word in the dictionary. I'll start out looking for "surreptitious" (the word that Webster's unhelpfully used in defining "pilfer"), and before I know it I'm caught up in "surplice," which is "a white, loose-fitting clerical vestment."

Sometimes, by the time I finish chasing all my vocabulary rabbits, I will have forgotten what I was looking up in the first place.

Another difficulty that I sometimes run into when whipping out the inexpensive-yet-compact dictionary I keep in my desk drawer is best explained by example.

Let's say I'm looking up "diva." In my desk dictionary, the definition is given as "a prima donna." That doesn't help me so much, because then I have to look up "prima donna."

The worst example I've come across (and I hesitate to say this in a family newspaper) is that "coitus" is defined as "sexual intercourse," while "sexual intercourse" is defined as "coitus."

Never mind why I was looking that up. Let's just say that obviously, a person would need to look elsewhere besides my "Webster's Handy College Dictionary" to learn about the birds and the bees.

So, even words can be quite frustrating sometimes. But I still enjoy them. That's why I intend to continue pilfering from my vocabulary from time to time and depositing my spoils into my writing.

I can only hope that some of my enjoyment will waft over to the readers.

Clay Wilson is the education reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or by e-mail at cwilson@henryherald.com.