Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Favorite Word Problem

I sometimes wonder how many times Peter Sokolowski has been asked what his favorite word is.

For those who don't know him: Peter Sokolowski is Editor-at-Large at Merriam-Webster Dictionaries. He's a regular fixture at the Scripps' Spelling Bee and a downright celebrity at the annual conference of ACES: The Society for Editing (formerly the American Copy Editors Society, hence the acronym). If your organization is looking for a dictionary nerd to come out and talk about lexicography, the history of the dictionary, or Noah Webster's place in American history, Peter is probably the guy you'll meet.

He's done quite a few interviews, too, and considering that his career is devoted to words, I suppose "What's your favorite word?" seems like an obvious and easy question. Linguists probably get asked about it a lot as well. And, of course, copy editors. I know I've been asked it a few times — once even in a job interview.

And it was a deceptively simple question. (Or maybe deceptively difficult?)

Ask me about my favorite car, and I can give you an answer right away (the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile) because my experience with nice cars — especially driving them — is limited. I don't have a lot of cars to choose a favorite from.

But words, though. Boy do I have a lot of experience with words. The result is that I don't really have just one favorite word. I have a lot of favorites for different reasons and situations. Here are some of them:

Favorite Word to Say

Epididymis: It sounds like a word invented by a drum set. (But it's definitely something that shouldn't be drummed on.)

Favorite Word to Write

For maybe the fifteen years after seventh grade, it was phantasmagoria, and I'd work it into my writing whenever I could. With its circles and swirls, ascenders and descenders, and crossed t's and dotted i's, it seemed to encapsulate all the Latin alphabet had to offer. Plus, I was a fan of the word's coiner, Edgar Allan Poe.

These days, it's susurrus. I like words that are self-descriptive (see also multisyllabic, which is multisyllabic, and four, which is the only number that contains the number of letters the word signifies). Plus, when I write susurrus in cursive, with all its upward strokes, it's as if I'm not so much writing the word as drawing the ocean's susurrus waves.

Favorite Word to Hear

It's a cop-out, in my opinion, to say that one's favorite words to hear are "I love you." Said by the wrong person or in the wrong situation, those three words are apt to make me feel awkward, not good. But one word that always makes me smile when I hear it is supercilious, probably because it sounds super-silly.

Favorite Word History

Mithridatize: (One of the first words I wrote about on this blog.) The story of Mithridates VI of Pontus is one of betrayal, paranoia, murder, and, most importantly, irony. It's so perfect that I don't even care whether it's actually true. And, as a bonus, mithridatization (the concept but not the word, unfortunately) plays a role in one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride.

Favorite Word to Discover Unexpectedly in the Middle of a Manuscript

Absquatulate: If you ever find me reading in a Starbucks, and without warning I jump from my seat, fists in the air, and shout "YYYESSSSS!" it probably means that whatever I was reading included the word absquatulate. (Or maybe sesquipedalian.) I don't know why exactly, and it doesn't happen very often.

Favorite Word to Deliberately Mispronounce

Voilá: I few people get me, but mostly I get strange looks when, with a flourish, I reveal whatever amazing thing I'm revealing and shout, "Viola!" A little metathesis never hurt anybody.

Favorite Word to Torture My Children With

Okay, so I need a new one of these, and I'm open to suggestions.

I have two sons who are now 16 and 20, and the older they get, the harder they are to torture. But when they were younger — pre-teens and earlier — this worked every time: If one of them was angry or upset or otherwise taking life too seriously, I only needed to say one word to break the spell and turn his frown into a (begrudging) grin.

The word: penis.

Having your father say "penis" just out of the blue, with no context or explanation, is just too awkward and silly for the young male mind to handle in any serious way. (It was even more effective when their mother did it.)

The Moral of the Story

The next time you're considering asking a logophile what their favorite word is, maybe instead come up with a more specific word question. Your interviewee will be pleasantly surprised, and you'll end up with an answer that is both more honest and more interesting.

So, fellow logophiles, what are some of your favorite words and why? And what other types of favorite words did I forget?