Weird Words 2

The second in a series of posts looking at words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Myriad

This is a word I tend to avoid because I’ve always been a little confused about its correct usage. Is it:

—there are a myriad of ways to use it

—there are myriads of ways to use it

—there are myriad ways to use it

or some other way?

Many years ago, I read that using it as a noun (as in the first two examples) is frowned upon and I therefore shied away from using it at all. But, on further investigation, it seems that all three examples are correct. It can be a noun or an adjective. According to Merriam-Webster:

Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase a myriad of, seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective.… [H]owever, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it.

So there. Use it pretty much in any way you want.

Supersede

—to displace, to force out of use as inferior, to cause to be set aside, to take the place or position of.

If ever there’s a word that you’d think would be spelt differently, it must be this one. How on earth isn’t it ‘supercede’? Apparently, some think it is. Here’s Merriam-Webster again:

Supercede has occurred as a spelling variant of supersede since the 17th century, and it is common in current published writing. It continues, however, to be widely regarded as an error.

Safer, then, to stick to the generally accepted spelling. Unless you’re feeling contrary…

Gubbins

I love this word. It seems mainly to be a word used in Britain, usually meaning the workings of some machinery, or bits and pieces that go into making something. I used it with glee in The Elevator, where two characters, one British, the other American, have just ventured out of an elevator, not into the office space they were expecting, but into a sun-drenched land inhabited by strange creatures.

“That’s the elevator shaft, right?’ said Kim from behind me.

“I guess so. Look how high it is. The gubbins must be inside it.’

“Gubbins?’

“Er, you know, the workings. Whatever makes it go up and down.’

“Ah. Sure. Okay.’ She gave a high-pitched, feverish giggle.

Like ‘discombobulate’ in Part 1, it’s one of those words that simply sounds perfect for its meaning.

 

That’s all for Part 2. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

Weird Words 1

Here begins a series of posts about words—what could be more apt for a writer’s blog? I’m going to take a light-hearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

Despite the title, not all words featured will seem weird to everyone but, you know, alliteration works well in a title. So ‘Weird Words’ it is.

Only a few each time to keep this manageable. All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Irregardless

You’ll sometimes see this word written in place of ‘regardless’ or ‘irrespective’. It makes me cringe because it always strikes me as, at best, a wholly unnecessary word to use when ‘regardless’ does the same job so well or, at worst, plain wrong. It has apparently been used (or, as some would say, misused) for many years; see Merriam-Webster’s tongue-in-cheek response to criticism for listing the word in their dictionary:

is-irregardless-a-real-word-heh-heh

This is probably one of those words that writers would do well to steer clear of. Rightly or wrongly, a writer who uses it is likely to be viewed by some, if not most, readers as someone of doubtful abilities. With all the competition out there to get eyes on our work, why take that chance?

Discombobulate

I’m including this word for no other reason than I love the way it sounds. Say it out loud; and again; once more. What a great word.

It means to disconcert or confuse someone, which is a perfectly satisfying definition to fit the sound of the word. Discombobulate: to confuse. Ahhh.

When starting this section, I was going to say I first became familiar with the word from the episode in Blackadder III* when Edmund Blackadder taunts Samuel Johnson about his dictionary and how it is not, in fact, a complete record of every word in the English language. However, on checking, I discover that Blackadder actually uses the word ‘pericombobulation’. No matter; that is a splendid-sounding word, too.

Moist

On a writing forum I frequent, sometimes a thread will come up about words people dislike. I was surprised when the humble word ‘moist’ became the focus of one of those threads, with the majority of commenters professing a strong dislike for it. Some went so far as to say they hate it.

It turns out that moist is one of the most disliked words in the English language. It’s something to do with people associating it in a negative way with bodily functions or the sexual act. See, for instance:

science-behind-why-people-hate-word-moist

I confess to feeling bemused.

Moist, for me, is a perfectly acceptable word to use in the right circumstances. Indeed, sometimes it can be the most appropriate word to use. Take this sentence from one of my books; it’s from a scene where a woman awakes from a coma in pitch darkness, having survived a deadly virus, to discover her bedfellow wasn’t so fortunate.

Tentatively, she reached out a hand to the other side of the bed, and withdrew it with a whimper when it encountered something cold and moist.

(from The Beacon)

‘Clammy’ might have worked there; ‘damp’, maybe; even, perhaps, ‘slimy’. But, to me, none of those words are as effective as ‘moist’ in describing what it must be like to reach out and touch a rotting corpse in the dark. It encapsulates clammy, damp and slimy all in one hit.

What a clever little word, punching well above its weight.

Sir Terry Pratchett, no less, used it for the first name of a Discworld character. Now there’s an author who could appreciate the merit of moist.

 

That’s all for Part 1. Don’t forget to mention in the comments any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

* for anyone who doesn’t know, Blackadder was a four-series sitcom that aired in the 80s, starring Rowan Atkinson, among others, set in various key periods throughout British history. It was quite brilliant and not only hilarious, but could be deeply poignant (anyone who’s seen the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth will know what I mean).

The Avid Reader’s Curse

Despite having more than half a million published words of fiction to my name, I still consider myself to be more a reader than a writer. Since I learned to read beyond ‘see the dog run’ at the age of four or five, I’ve read pretty much constantly. If I had to give up all sources of entertainment except one, books are what I’d keep. I’d miss watching films and sport, and listening to music, but I’d miss books more. Yeah, you get the point.

Like other avid readers, I probably have a more extensive vocabulary than someone who doesn’t read for pleasure. But that can bring its own problems and thus the title of this piece. (‘Curse’ is probably putting it too strongly but, you know, snappy titles.) There are words I have encountered in reading whose meaning I know, either from context or from looking them up, but that I have absolutely no clue how to pronounce.

I couldn’t have been more than six when I first encountered this problem. In school, writing a story, I wanted to say that the protagonist was so tired he collapsed from ‘exhaustion’. I knew the word, but not how to spell it. Even less, as it turned out, how to pronounce it. Try as I might, I could not make the teacher understand what word I wanted him to spell for me and in the end I gave up in embarrassment.

When I was around ten or eleven, I read a series of Westerns, passed down to me from my grandfather, in which one character frequently called another a ‘sonova bitch’. I had absolutely no idea what the term meant, mainly because I was pronouncing ‘sonova’ incorrectly in my head as ‘sonne-over’. In the end, I settled for it meaning a not-very-nice person from an even-less-nice place called Sonova, which the author had forgotten to capitalise. It took a good while for the penny to eventually drop, bless me.

Years later, when I had started working for a living, I encountered for the first time in writing the name Siobhan. In my head and, to my great discomfort on meeting the lady of that name, I pronounced it as something sounding very similar to autobahn. Thankfully, she found it amusing and corrected me with a twinkle in her eye, though I suspect she secretly wondered how I had spent all those years in college.

Then there were the Harry Potter books, which my elder daughter read as they were published and which I read after her. I’d never come across the name Hermione before. In my head, for the first three or four books, she was ‘Herm-ee-own’, that sounding marginally better to me than the alternative ‘Herm-ee-won’—my brain insisted on adding ‘Kenobe’ to that version. It wasn’t until I overheard my daughter telling her younger sister about the books that I heard the correctly pronounced name of Hermione for the first time. How they mocked when I confessed my ignorance, while I laughed outwardly and cried a little inside.

There are many place names in the States which I read about long before I heard them spoken. There are two that immediately spring to mind: Arkansas and Yosemite. I don’t remember hearing the state being spoken about much before Clinton’s rise to prominence and, yep, I used to pronounce it in my head as ‘Ar-kansas’, not the correct ‘Ar-ken-saw’. As for Yosemite, I failed to realise the link with the name of the cartoon character Yosemite Sam. So I pronounced it ‘Yosser-might’, which makes it seem more like a cousin of that vile-sounding Australian spread vegemite than a national park.

Here are some more, though this list is by no means exhaustive; I tend to come across new ones every few months or so:

Hyperbole—I mention this one because I’ve often heard others mispronouncing it, usually to make it sound like a super-duper version of the USA’s Superbowl.

Paradigm—never sure about this one: is it ‘para-dim’ or ‘para-dime’? It’s the sort of word where knowing the correct pronunciation won’t help me because it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever use it in conversation and so the next time I see it in print I’ll have forgotten the correct pronunciation and will make it sound in my head like whichever version first pops into it.

Preface—this comes at the beginning of a book so it made perfect sense, to me, to pronounce this ‘pree-face’. It came as a surprise to learn that it’s properly pronounced with a short first e, like in ‘pretzel’.

Segue—yep, this was pronounced like ‘vague’ in my book (that’s the autobiographical Sam Kates book of being an ignoramus). I knew there was also a word out there to do with transitions in music which sounded as if it was spelt something like ‘segway’, but the connection between the two, i.e. that they are the same word, didn’t occur until recently.

Victuals—an oft-read word, especially when younger when I used to read books about explorers and expeditions, and one I pronounced phonetically, enunciating the c and the ua combination as you would in the word ‘actual’. Who’d have thought (not me, certainly) that it’s pronounced like its archaic spelling ‘vittles’, to rhyme with ‘skittles’?

There is an upside to this problem: many of these words are rarely, if ever, going to be dropped into casual conversation—not unless you’re an expeditionary or a musician or you’re trying to sound pompous—and, really, nobody cares how we pronounce these things in the private space of our own head. Just as well, eh, or every time we came to have to pronounce one out loud, we’d all be in an ague.