Thursday, May 17, 2007

conjuring gross and beautiful things

I've been writing a poem about a woman who hates a particular word, born of thinking about why people dislike certain words. Leaving language people-creative writers out, when people dislike words it's usually because of baggage - what the words mean or suggest, or sometimes how they look. It’s rare that people hate words simply for how they ride the air - the sound of them.

High on the list are words people hate that are parts of the body, like gland or urethra or cochlea. Some hate buttocks, or they hate lobe or nostril. I should note there are body words people love, too. But I’ll save those for another page.

Next come words that express bodily functions, like secrete, ooze and coagulate. People have physical reactions to those words. Their faces freeze up, or they take a long blink.

Many dislike what oozes from the body, like snot, vomit and fluid. I’m not trying to be gross, but words like these can have more of an effect than curses, also despised by many. Disembodied, the word pus, for example, is a perfectly nice word, and pustule, is even nicer with its deep /tshul/, reminiscent of jewel.

Some people also dislike words that are suggestive of the body if not specific to it, like pungent and moist. People hate moist, but have no reaction to mist, or hoist or joist.

People are also influenced by the look of a word, which means you’ll find people who hate the word kumquat. The –ph- combination strikes some as wimpy or fake, causing them to dislike the name Phil, but not think twice about fill. I include myself among those discomfitted by words deliberately misspelled, like kewt and kwik chek.

The real baggage words that people hate, and are hardly worth mentioning since they're usually political or highly idiosyncratic, are slogan type words that represent something, like green. Too bad for green with its lovely long /i/ and its traditional image of spring. Lorca will be along to haunt them! I knew a guy who hated the suffix –ish, and recall how he fussed when someone said they’d meet him around eightish. Other people hate diminutives. Americans dislike Britishisms and vice-versa. People also hate high-sounding words like hence or eschew, and foreign words like verboten, which are often considered snobbish, no matter how inherently beautiful.

What I find most interesting is disliking a word purely based on sound, forgetting how it looks, what it means or could mean. I dislike the harsh sound of drake, for example. To bring the baggage in, I guess it insinuates the rake and crane of tools and machinery. I believe drake is also a kind of duck, but I like ducks and duck, a word which begins and ends so tidily.

Of course you can also love a word simply based on sound. When I was around eightish, I remember my mother telling me how she liked sewer, and I went off saying it over and over, divorcing it from everything, fascinated by the idea of liking pure sound.

Last year I asked people for three of their favorite words. The answers were surprising and not surprising, but always interesting. Here are some of those:
coffee, succulent, toast, and marmalade, gravity, butterscotch, skin. Gestalt. rue, yes, great, thanks. slug, surf, engine, rauschenberg, phenomenon, onomatopoeia, facetious, tintinabulation, sunshine, smells, jiminy, honky-tonk, mosey, lunatic, madrugada, flabbergasted, strawberry, roustabout, snug, Caligula, bucket, Rorschach, osé, fathom, fossilized; marriage, dystopia, copralite, hawk, serendipitous, hogmanay, luscious, flibbertygibbet, bitch, squeek, ramp, skunk, nebula, light, travelling, chagrin, music, silk, friends, cerebral, myopic, discombobulate, erratic, lolling, certainly, ofcourse, Susquehanna, slip, strozzapreti, chartreuse, Volatile, Ravine, and Lucid, shoes, kids, apprehension. water, anthropomorphize, hi, nevertheless, circumspect, and wherwithal, ausgezeichnet, grin, tentative, elegance


Andrew Shields said...

I've always like ubiquitous myself.

Laura said...

Very interesting. I had a professor who hated the word "moniker." He insisted I remove it from my introductory chapter, because it was "an awkward Americanism." Personally, I never cared for the word "hymen," and my husband hates the word "perineum." Everyone in my (large) family grew up referring to female genitalia as "bibbit" (that's another story). Anyway, when my sister had a daughter, she decided to use "vulva" instead, which I think is just an ugly word. Sad, I know, but there you have it.
I enjoy your site very much.

SarahJane said...

andrew - I love ubiquitous! It's like riding in a wheelbarrow over cobblestones.
laura - I like "moniker." Nice sounds, and humorously evocative of monkeys. "Bibbit" is a sweet word, and "vulva" indeed makes my brain melt. I also don't like "hymen," maybe because it sounds awful, or maybe because of the baggage.

Andrew Shields said...

I'm also partial to mellifluous.

Rachel Mallino said...

2 of my favorites are on that list: rue and Caligula. I also like Penelope if we are talking names. Roustabout is a great word, too.

Rachel Mallino said...

p.s. - as for body parts, I love anything ending in bone, particularly knuckle-bone.

Andrew Shields said...

And then there's Dumbledore's four words: "Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!"

Oddment being the coolest of those.

Anonymous said...

May I add 'propinquity'? I find both its sound & its connotations pleasing.

As for anatomical vocabulary, I'd be lost (both literally & figuratively) without 'bollocks'.

michi said...

sarah, i love this post. :)

language is such a fascinating thing, and i do find myself pondering the things you mention here.

my favourite words include madrugada, sunflower, bumblebee, onomatopoeia. and murmele - which is what we call a murmeltier (marmot) in carinthia; it's a diminutive.

a word i never liked is rigoros (in german). and snog. i could never snog someone. ugh.

as for names: gabriele and claudia are horrible. i was no surprised when the result of a german survey was that these are considered the top two "unsympathischsten mädchennamen". :)

anyway. enough.


SarahJane said...

I also love Rachel's and Dick's and Michi's words. And Andrew, anything with "odd" in it sounds good.
In general, I think people have an easier time finding words to love than to hate. I had to dig to come up with drake.
Names are a whole other subject, in my opinion. Definitely packing a lot of baggage and fashion.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, this was fun to read, and it might make a good article for Verbatim: The Language Quarterly --email me ( if you are interested and I'll give you the editor's email.

Lisa said...

It's my first time viewing your blog, and I've found it via Peter's Slow Reads. What a hilarious post--I love it so much because I, myself, have often pondered this phenomenon (good word) of loving or loathing language.

I suppose some of my most hated words ever are definitely related to the body. I do hate moist, but even more than that, I hate boner and crotch--the actually make me nearly gag when I hear them. Speaking of which, the word gag is utterly displeasing, also.

I can't think of which words I absolutely adore. I think, as a writer, there are too many of them. I like the word pervasive. It just seems to have so much imagery attached to it.

Thanks for the post--great fun!

SarahJane said...

thanks, daintee. i can't help but agree with you about "boner" and "crotch!" aaaaaaahhhhhh

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