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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Widdowson

Obscure Words

Updated: Mar 3

If you read my blog titled "Everyone Has a Story", you already know that I am a little obsessed with John Koenig’s book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, and the videos he created to go along with them. A book of obscure words! How wonderful! I love the idea of simply creating your own new words when you can’t find the right one to express the emotion or experience you’re trying to convey.

Sometimes I feel hem-jawed when I’m writing. Hem-jawed is one of the words from Koenig’s dictionary that means, “feeling trapped inside your own language…unable to break out of its age-old structures and melodies, frustrated that the scattering of verbal pigments on its palette could never quite capture the colors in your head.” What a great definition! He obviously has no problem thinking of the right words. He derived hem-jawed from the combination of the word hem (in as an attempt to clear the throat) and jaw (as in coarse babble).

When writing, there are often times when I can’t seem to find the right word to convey the feeling I want to get across. Or I can find it, but I’ve already used it too often, and that's not fun for the reader. I’ve been tempted to use words from the Obscure dictionary in my stories. But that presents a problem. The only people who would understand the meaning would be those who are aware of the dictionary’s existence and are already familiar with the words in it and their meanings.

I’ve thought about making up my own words and then adding a dictionary in the back of my book similar to what Anthony Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange—one of my favorite books, by the way. Burgess added new slang words into the book’s dialect to ensure the character conversations felt like they belonged in its futuristic setting. When I first read it, I didn’t realize he had included a dictionary in the back, and I spent several chapters trying to figure out the meaning of these unfamiliar words simply from their context.

If you can’t already tell, I am a logophile—a lover of words, and I enjoy finding obscure, archaic, rarely used words whose meanings surprise and delight me. I would really like to incorporate more of them into my everyday language, but there’s a dilemma. I don’t want to sound pretentious, and most people wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I used them. Not to mention the fact that I would have to remember the word, its meaning, and find a reason to use it in my everyday conversation.

I managed to use a couple of thought-provoking words in my last book, MYND Control. Don’t worry. I won’t give anything away if you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. One of those words was galimatias, which means "nonsense, gibberish, or confused or meaningless talk." I’m sure there have been many opportunities for me to use this word in everyday conversation, but I never seem to remember to do it. There’s no reliable etymology for this word, although one theory is that it comes from the French word of the same meaning and spelling.

The other word was pareidolia, which means "the ability to see shapes of pictures where they don’t exist"—like when you see faces or animals in the clouds or in a pattern in floor tiles or wallpaper. This happens to me all the time, which should make it easy to use this word now and then. But no. For some reason, I have a hard time remembering this one. The term is derived from two Greek words: para, which means "beside or beyond", and eidos, meaning "images, appearance or looks." Combine those together, and you get pareidolia.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is interesting for its imagination and creativity. But if you’re interested in a list of obscure words that are “real” and you could possibly use in your next book, or just to throw around and impress your friends and family, there’s another source you may find useful. It’s The Phrontistery. It includes a lot of very interesting links, such as the International House of Logorrhea—logorrhea meaning "excessive and often incoherent talkativeness or wordiness."

Here’s one of my favorites from The Phronististery: pleonasm: "the use of more words than those necessary to denote something." An example of this might be: "The man, he said something." No need to use "he". Another term for pleonasm is redundant. So you can probably see why the word pleonasm doesn’t get used much. Another word I really like is tolutiloquence, which means "smooth or flowing speech." That’s something I wish I was more talented at, especially when I’m giving a presentation to a book club about one of my books.

This next word suggestion is obsolete. But if you are a fantasy writer, this one might come in handy. Venefic means "to have poisonous effects." So you could write something like: "The wizard’s spell was venefic to the witch. She fell, clutching at her pale throat, light blue foam spewing from her red lips." I could have a lot of fun with that word.

Looking back into The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, there’s another word I love. It’s mal de coucou. This means “a condition in which you have an active social life but very few close friends.” I think this would be a sad and appropriate state of life for a serial killer. Hmm. I’ve been thinking about having one of those in my next book. Maybe I’ll slip this word into it and see if any of my readers notice.

If you’re trying to describe what someone looks like and you’re tired of using the terms short, stout and squatty, try napiform on for size. The meaning of this word is "shaped like a turnip." Or maybe you’re trying to describe someone’s personality and they’re cantankerous and hard to get along with. Perhaps the word quisquous might come in handy? Which means "perplexing or difficult to deal with."

I could go on and on, of course. But I’m sure you would rather visit these websites, or read the Obscure dictionary for yourself. Perhaps you can find the perfect word for your next writing project, to improve your vocabulary, or just to get the exact point across you are trying to make.

When I was in hi-tech sales, I used to belong to a group called Toastmasters. Their main purpose was to help members be less nervous and get their points across clearly when speaking in front of a group. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health states that the fear of public speaking (known as glossophobia, by the way) is the most common phobia—ahead of death, spiders or heights. As part of the Toastmasters’ training, members were encouraged to insert a word that was new to them into their speeches. So not only were they improving their speaking capabilities, they were improving their vocabulary as well. That's a habit I try to keep up even though I'm not longer a member of the group.

What words do you love? What words color your life? Are you like me and think it’s fun searching for quirky or forgotten words to include in your writing or conversation? My wish is that you get some enjoyment from perusing the websites I’ve provided or reading the Obscure dictionary. I hope you’re not antithalian. If not, you might find that you need a factotum and more than a quire to write down all the fadoodle you find. I hope it makes you mabsoot but I also don’t want you to cachinnate!

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Love mal de coucou!

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