Content writer Katrina is a big fan of language. Just don’t mention ‘moist’.
I’ve recently been reading a best-seller dedicated to giving a larger audience to some of the greatest correspondence in history. The author of the book, and the blog it derives from, isn’t elitist. He gives equal page space to letters from famous authors and presidents, school teachers and teenagers.
One of my favourites from the first collection is a letter written by an ex-copywriter who quit his job in advertising with the dream of being a screenwriter. His covering introduction for the job at MGM is actually a brilliant love letter to English language words – the weird and wonderful, the brilliant and onomatopoeic, the sublime and the ridiculous. He mentions his love of ‘fat, buttery words’ – ‘ooze’ and ‘toady’, ‘crunchy’ and ‘crackly’ words like ‘splinter’ and ‘crusty’. He likes ‘scowling words’ like ‘skulk’ and ‘glower’ and ‘sniggly’ words like ‘gurgle’ and ‘burp’.
The letter got me thinking. What are my favourite words? Long words like’ transmogrification’ and ‘numismatist’? Sometimes. The happy fortune of ‘serendipity’ and the cat purr of the ‘per’ words: ‘persimmon’, ‘peregrination’, ‘perspicacious’ and ‘peripatetic’? Definitely. What about the word that launched a romance once: ‘epicurean’? An old boyfriend loved the fact that I’d used it in a train conversation. The romance might not have lasted but the understanding of the subtle effect words can have certainly did.
I thought harder. The categories the copywriter-cum-screenplay writer fits his favourite words into are almost as wonderful as the words themselves. What words would I describe as ‘crabbed’ or ‘scowling’, ‘spurious’ or ‘suave’? Did I agree with his evaluation of the word ‘estivate’ as ‘elegant’? I didn’t, to be honest. For me it seems snobbish and has such a hard full stop of an ending.
One woman I knew from a village book club years ago confessed to us that the word ‘moist’ made her feel physically unwell and so I began to think about the words that can most make me cringe and squirm in my seat? I wondered if there was any word for which I had such a visceral response that wasn’t a racist or sexist slur. I then realised that I used to love the word ‘twitter’ but now feel uncomfortable when anyone says it. In a similar vein, I now hate the word ‘synergy’ since visions of oily, self-help gurus begin to dance in my head at the mere mention of it. The shortened and nasty informality of ‘celeb’ also annoys. It is astounding, isn’t it, to consider the power that simple words, a number of symbols on a page, can have on people?
Words are very personal. What one person finds appealing, another will reject as boring or pointless. When I asked my husband and son to define their favourites and most hated of the moment, they responded jointly with this list: ‘wi-fi’, ‘charge’ and ‘loading’. Their least favourites: ‘crash’, ‘reboot’ and ‘game over’. You can see what their minds were on at the time!
No one’s words are less important than anyone else’s. They are a measure of our taste and our personalities. They are as defining a part of us as our favourite colour or band but they are something we don’t really take the time to think about very often.
So, I encourage you and your students to investigate your own personal response to words. What are your favourites? What are your most hated and why? Try categorizing words like the screenwriter Robert Pirosh did in his cover letter to MGM studios. Try drawing words in a way that shows their meaning to you through the purely visual. Try writing a love letter to words. Celebrate the beauty of the English language in a new and different way.