As will probably come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, I am a huge word nerd. I have a list of favorite words I’ve been building since childhood, and I am delighted when I get to see these words in print or (more rarely) speak them aloud. Many of my favorite words have obscure, often very specific, meanings; others I like because they are just fun to say.
When I was a kid, two of my favorite words were onomatopoeia and pandemonium. My step-cousin Jason had a hilarious story he’d tell at family gatherings about one of his teachers, a Vietnam vet with a metal plate in his head, who would throw books across the classroom while bellowing, “Onomatopoeia!” The story would reduce my brother and me to tears of laughter every time, and it’s the reason why, at age ten, I memorized the definition and spelling of onomatopoeia. I started collecting words – mainly words that were challenging to spell and that had esoteric meanings. (I was the only kid I knew who had a teddy bear named Pandemonium.)
As I grew older and read more, my collection of words increased. Sometimes this led to embarrassing conversations in which I would try (and fail) to pronounce the words I’d never heard spoken, only read. (When I was in elementary school, the first time I said the word chaos out loud for example, I pronounced it “chowse,” which sort of rhymed with “Taos” – I was mortified to be corrected.)
When I started college, I found even more great words to hoard, many of which related to the study of literature: syzygy, metonymic, synecdoche, kenning, litotes, sibilant, Plantagenet. I had index cards full of vocabulary words, not because I ever needed them for tests, but because I found it satisfying to be able to hold these words in my hands, gleefully (and obsessively) sifting through them the way I imagined little boys would pore over their most treasured baseball cards.
These days, it’s rare for me to come across words I don’t recognize, and I’m always surprised and delighted when I do. Some recent acquisitions are mephitic, pusillanimous, grimoire, and cetology. I’ve noticed that some of my current favorite words are related to some favorites from my past: murmur and hum are both examples of onomatopoeia, as is (in a way) blizzard.
It appears that the vocabulary obsession runs in the family. When my niece Olivia was in Kindergarten, I asked her what her favorite word was. She thought for a moment, then replied, “Teacher.” I asked her why it was her favorite, and she surprised me with the depth of her answer. “It feels good in my mouth when I say it,” she said. “Teacher. Teacher. Teacher.” And then she smiled up at me, my sweet little word nerd, and I thought, Yes. Some words are just fun to say, and isn’t that wonderful. The girl is just like me, and I can imagine her collecting words of her own as she grows.
My wish for her is what I wish for you all, for my students, for everyone: may you continue always to expand your vocabulary, may you not be intimidated by difficult words, may you consult the dictionary regularly and without shame, and most of all, may you find joy in words.
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