I recently heard about a new website, sponsored by the great Oxford English Dictionary, called “Save the Words” (www.savethewords.org). On this website one can adopt rarely used words such as historiaster (a bad historian) or riviation (fishing) by promising to use the word regularly in writing and conversation. The website got me thinking. What are the Mason English Department faculty’s favorite words? So I asked.
Professor Devon Hodges likes two words she only hears together, snickets and ginnels. These words, still regularly used in England, refer to paths between hedges or fences (snickets) and between high walls (ginnels). Professor Hodges likes these words because they describe a tradition in England of paths that cross through private property, allowing walkers or cyclists to avoid busy roads. Of course, she says, she also likes how the two words sound.
Sound is also what Professor Jennifer Atkinson likes about words she calls doubles, such as roly-poly, ping-pong, hodgepodge, tutti-frutti, bric-a-brac. She also likes words such as ruly (orderly), kempt (combed), whelm (to cover or bury), ruth (pity). Because these words are typically encountered only in their negative versions (for example, unruly), she enjoys the surprise of using of their far rarer, positive roots. And she wants to keep them rare! “Greedy, I want them undimmed for myself.”
Professor David Kuebrich likes the funny image produced by chinfest, which means an informal discussion. He enjoys the idea of chins having a good time. Professor Winnie Keaney likes to think about word origins. One of the department’s medievalists, she notes that a favorite phrase of hers, willy-nilly (without choice or randomly), comes from the Middle English “wil he, nil he,” meaning, “will he or will he not.”
Others admire words for their precision. Professor Denise Albanese mentions transmogrify, which means not just to transform but to transform into something grotesque. Professor Roger Lathbury notes adventitious, which means something added from without. He calls it a beautiful, exact word. And Professor Amelia Rutledge likes temerity (excessive boldness). “What I found—and still find—striking is the rightness of the word…,” she says. “‘Temerity’ conveys a nuance of decorum and, unlike ‘rash’ or ‘bold,’ is almost never used positively."
All these choices remind me why people care about words. Some are windows into different places and ways of living. Some provide access to ideas or feelings that we otherwise could not describe so precisely. Some remind us of how concepts evolve from particular human experiences. Some words are surprising, and some just fun. We are lucky that the tools by which we communicate can also make a sort of music. Those of us who are students or teachers of English share a love of words.
So I invite you to go to the Save the Words site and adopt one. If you enjoy words and enjoyed your time in the English Department studying them, I also invite you to consider donating to the department. To contribute, go yare—don’t penelopize—to english.gmu.edu/support, and follow the instructions on that page. Your donation will support the English Department mission to save the words—and celebrate them.
Chair, English Department