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The Words We Love, and Why

"Kumquat," "rutabaga," and other objects of word attraction In last week's column on word aversion, I felt a little like the only Green Bay...

“Kumquat,” “rutabaga,” and other objects of word attraction

In last week’s column on word aversion, I felt a little like the only Green Bay Packer fan without a giant cheese on my head. Though I’ve harbored a small grudge against fail and a minor beef against problematic, I’ve seldom felt icked out by a word.

But word attraction? Well, word attraction is why I write this column every week. I love too many words to count, but I must admit a special place in my heart for reduplicative words (splitter-splatter, brouhaha, pooh-pooh, clitter-clatter), B.S. words (rubbish, twaddle, hokum, truthiness), and batty exclamations (Mother Mary in a motorboat! Christ on a crouton!). So yeah, I can relate to this topic. Normal people are not quite the word whore I am, but they usually have a few favorites that combine meaning and mouthfeel in the lexical equivalent of a chocolate milkshake.

And yet, maybe for the same reason the headlines “Dog is adorable” and “People coexist happily” rarely make the front page, word love is the neglected sibling of word hate. In a column of Kristi L. Gustafson’s for the Albany Times-Union, The Atlantic’s Word-monger Barbara Wallraff was shy about disclosing her favorite words, saying (jokingly?) that it wouldn’t be “appropriate”—but she gladly lambasted phony-sounding words like perfunctorily. It even took the word wizards at Language Log forever to get to the topic of word attraction, but University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman finally did recently, noting that, “These positive reactions are of course diverse—some do involve irrational attraction to the sound or feel of a word or phrase, but many involve pleasure in a clever coinage, or a newly-discovered word with a meaning perceived as useful.”

Though Liberman said this “irrational lexical exuberance” often seemed “fickle and evanescent,” many comments emphasized the idea of mouthfeel. Word lovers said of various terms: “It’s a really fun word to say,” “...I love the way it feels to say the word,” and “I love the way it forms on my lips...” Like word aversion, there’s a physical component to word attraction, and there’s no doubt that frequently liked words—such as kumquat, discombobulate, plethora, and persnickety—have forms that roll off the tongue in a unique, yummy way. Despite my childhood crush on rutabaga, I am certain that a rutabaga never passed my lips: what I grooved on was the sound and feel of the word, just like this Language Log commenter demonstrates with his own fave: “I've always really liked saying ‘ghoulish’. Ghoulish, ghoulish, ghoulish.” A recent tweet shows the same glee: “y'know what a funny word is" ‘blurt’ hahahaha, seriously it's my new favorite word, say it like ten times and you'll see what i mean” (July 24, 2009, LevitatingSalt).

On the other hand, meaning means something when it comes to word attraction. Language Log commenter Steve makes an excellent point about a trio of similar-sounding words: “I remember once using the word 'ambivalence' to someone who responded with 'What a lovely word - ambivalence! I'll tell you another lovely word - ambience!' I managed to bite my tongue before enquiring if she was also enamoured of the word 'ambulence', but I suspect the answer would have been negative.” For the same reason, you seldom read passionate odes to syphilis or genocide.

Liberman searched for the phrase favorite new word on the web, coming up with words such as elopement, electrochemiluminescence, heinous, wowsers, zombieconomy, schnitzel, defenestration, Baracknophobia, toevage, and buffoonery, among others.

In the interests of science, I did the same search on Twitter, and the diversity of faves knocked me out of my dictionary-propped chair. Some seem to have been chosen for the vivid sound (lush, pizzazz, piddle) or melodious sound/meaning (rhapsodic, loquacious, confluence, euphoria). Others would amuse Beavis and Butthead (poopbutt, assbucket, douchenugget, banana hammock). The pleasures of making new words can be seen in the suffix mayhem that produced the double armageddon ragnapocalypse, plus lesbiantics, degrogification, recessionista, moonvertising, scientifical, and glam-trashtastic. Fan words (Spockblocked, Voldemortian), regional words (absquatulate, cattywampus), and old-fashioned words (witnesseth, ignoramus) were well-loved too.

There’s not a whole lot that links buffoonery and Voldemortian and witnesseth and poopbutt, except that they would sound cool in a sentence like, “The poopbutt witnesseth the Voldemortian buffoonery.” Despite their differences of sound, tone, and meaning, these words are yoked together by the power of what I just decided to call lexical neophilia: a love of new words. Just like my dog goes giddy when he finds a new stinky spot to roll in at the park, we word-mongers can’t help verbally wallowing in a neato word. It’s too irresistible.

Now if you’ll excuse me... Rutabaga rutabaga rutabaga rutabaga!

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