“Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, are all very good words for the lips.” — Charles Dickens
I’ve been thinking about words a lot lately, because I’ve been reading some really good books by authors who know how to skilfully employ them.
I’m also (slowly) learning Italian — the beautiful language at the heart of many English words.
I love words that look intriguing on a page, sound interesting to your ear and feel good on your tongue.
In this era of media types talking on and on about “drilling down” and “unpacking things” and “reaching out,” I like to revisit lesser used words and expressions, ones that can conjure up whole worlds in themselves.
Out of fashion? Perhaps, but with an Old World charm.
Here are some of my favourites.
Susurration — As a child, I have a wonderful memory of four elderly sisters — four of my great-aunts — reuniting for a family wedding. From behind the closed door of a guest bedroom in my cousin’s house, you could hear their sibilant whispers and their palpable excitement as they caught up on each other’s news. Rustling leaves sometimes make the same sound on a crisp fall night. It’s from the Latin susurrare, “to murmur, hum.”
Perambulator — Strollers are nice with their shade screens and storage spaces, cup holders and built-in safety harnesses, but give me a good old baby carriage for a change, with its smart silver spoked wheels and retractable hood. Inside you can glimpse a baby wearing a knitted matinee jacket, sleeping blissfully. That’s how they always were in the story books, anyway. From the Latin verb perambulare, to walk all over.
Bazaar — Farmer’s markets are popular places, and rightly so, showcasing the best of local produce and artisanal foods. You hardly ever hear of bazaars anymore, but with that word you can imagine the sights and smells and sounds of a Middle Eastern market on a hot, dry day when the air is scented with spice and incense.
Portmanteau words — A French word, portmanteau refers to the kind of leather trunk or suitcase with two compartments that someone was always loading onto a train in French films. These days we make do with luggage. But portmanteau words are something different altogether. They do have two parts, though — they are the offspring of two words combined, as in “slithy” from the melding of “slimy” and “lithe” — one of many colourful portmanteau words coined by Lewis Carroll. “Motel” and “brunch” are more conventional portmanteau words, and not nearly as evocative.
Promenade, Pianoforte and Languor — Together, these summon up a day well spent. First, a stroll along the waterfront. Then, entertainment — someone with clever fingers picks out a sprightly tune on the pianoforte (earlier versions were known as fortepianos and later versions simply as pianos). Piano means soft and forte means loud in Italian. Afterwards, on this hot afternoon, you could loll in a hammock, the air heavy with the delicious listlessness of languor.
Oscillation — This word also has a lovely hissing sound on your tongue. Lacking a hammock, perhaps you will take to the chaise longue and allow yourself to be mesmerized by the oscillations of the overhead fan, feeling the welcome breeze.
Tend hands — A phrase my parents often used — not as you might expect, in the context of hands used to tend a garden — but to express the exasperation of not having enough hands to do all that needs to be done, as in “I can’t tend hands to it all!”
Flummox/lummox — There’s something wonderfully leaden about how these words feel, like having a mouthful of sand. One means to bewilder and the other a clumsy person, but with their Xs and double Ms, they both give you something to chew on.
I like to think of words as Welsh poet George Herbert did, as things that are “worth much, and cost little.”
Go ahead, indulge yourself. Take a dip into the dictionary. Bon voyage.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton