Schnapps sounds like it’s already drunk. The word dares you to order it with a second-rate Sean Connery impersonation: “Schnapps. Becush schnapps ish delishus, Moneypenny.” While the beverage itself is a discordant juxtaposition of cloying sweetness, venomous bite, and ill-advised chemistry (banana-flavored booze?) its name shares none of these traits. It’s a fun word to say, the sibilance snaking out through the teeth, a cartoonish word that seems like its etymology could be traced to Theodore Geisel – it seems more at home in a Dr. Seuss book than out of it.
U.S. dictionaries try to sully the fun by insisting that schnapps rhymes with snaps, which means ordering it will have you sounding less like James Bond and more like a crabby crone at the DMV. I prefer the softer, rounder British pronunciation that more closely resembles the phonic in shops. That’s the way to say it – it gives the word a grace and elegance that a 50-proof peach-flavored science fair project can’t earn on its liquid merits. Say it aloud and you’ll see what I mean – though not within earshot of a bartender, as the word is more deliciously delightful than the beverage itself.
With apologies to the writers, my favorite line in Barry Frank’s splendid screenplay Get Shorty (based on Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name) comes when Bo Catlett warns the Columbian Yayo that DEA agents will have a bulge at their ankle due to a concealed weapon and asks, “Savvy bulge?” The grammar is a mess, but I love both the efficiency of the question, and the irony that someone who may be unfamiliar with the word bulge would none the less absorb that shorthand use of savvy.
Savvy is smart, but it’s a bit more slippery than its synonyms: Sharp is what you show on a resume, savvy is what you prove when the pressure is on; clear-sighted will help you locate the right spot on the horizon, savvy will help you navigate the path between here and there. I grew up with savvy as an adjective, but I like it even more as a verb, the way Bo Catlett uses it – a substitute for capiche, an abbreviation of Do you understand? Yeah, I savvy bulge. No need to say more.
Trousers isn’t a beautiful word. It’s a bit pudgy, a lot plain, and rolls off the tongue like a pumpkin rolling around the back of a pickup truck. Yet I adore it, blunt and blue-collared as it is. It may be more coal than diamond, but it has a lot more sparkle than “pants”, an ugly word, sharp and whiny — even Barry White couldn’t make “pants” sound sexy. Of course, he might have trouble with trousers, too. It’s one of those words the Brits have kept for themselves, so it sticks out a little when it’s uttered in America, like calling an elevator “the lift” or your home “my flat.”
I can track the point of entry of certain words in my vocabulary (I first read “qualms” in a purloined Penthouse Forum when I was a teen, so the word is imbued with a sexiness far beyond its true meaning) but trousers has an untraceable personal etymology. The English major in me would like to think it was Dickens or Orwell who snuck it into my subconscious during my college studies, or at the least, that I nicked it from Ian Fleming during my summer of Bond. I’d feel self-righteously smug if I could pin it down such a literary origin, but knowing me, it was probably whispered by some sexy-voiced Irish lass whose use of the word conjured daydreams of the trousers’ content, not the cloth. (That’s how it happens sometimes. Sorry Mr. Dickens.)
Ensemble. Say it a few times — ahhn-sahhhm-bull. It glides over the tongue like top-shelf liquor, strong and smooth, no unpleasant edges. It’s the pleasant gentleman in the boisterous brew pub of our language, wearing the phonics of its French roots like a tiara, free of the uncertainty that accompanies awkward imports like oeuvre or foie gras.Ahhn-sahhhm-bull. Its natural pacing gracefully slows a sentence to a more relaxed rate, momentarily taking the hurry out of the world. It’s one of those uncommon words that is often more beautiful than the thing it describes. (Though that’s certainly true of foie gras as well.)
Yet ensemble is much more than a pretty whisper in one’s ear. “Lovely ensemble” is both a nice thing to say and a nice way to say it. The recipient is elevated by the elegance of the tone, buoyed by the sophistication of the sonic. It is irreplaceable, because its so-called synonyms are in no way kindred spirits: Outfit? Strictly kid’s stuff. (Cate Blanchett wears an ensemble; Miley Cyrus wears an outfit.) Clothes? Please, clothes are something you buy at Sears. If what a person wears is worthy of comment, it’s worthy of a genuine compliment — call it an ensemble.
The word squawked from the overhead speakers — what did the prerecorded woman announcing the streetcar stops advise we hang on to as the train lurched forward? This was public transit, where language is crafted for the masses, simplified to the point of ideograms. Did she say stanchion? Is that the word for those thick plastic loops that hang from the overhead railing of the train, the straps to which standing riders cling in order to remain standing?
A stanchion, I learned later, is actually an upright pole, post, or support, and a common structural accessory on all public transit. But what pleases me most isn’t the word itself, but the context: Trimet could have chosen words that everyone knows — “hold on to the uprights” or even just “hold on.” Instead, they used the specific, appropriate, little-known word, tossing it out like bait to the lexically curious. It felt like a covert vocabulary lesson, an homage to accuracy and a defiance of the dumb-it-down mindset that permeates many of our public spaces. Bold move, robot Trimet lady. Well done.
Pumpernickel is a bulbous bon vivant of phonetic splendor: say it once, it sounds like your mouth is already at a party to which your brain is just arriving; say it twice and it’s the grin-worthy punch line to an odd and unspoken joke; say it five times — pumpernickel, pumpernickel, pumpernickel, pumpernickel, pumpernickel — and it chugs like a animated freight train barreling through a cartoon landscape. Repetitions beyond five will guarantee a vacant seat beside you on the commuter train.
If you’re unfamiliar, Pumpernickel is a type of rye bread, a dense, chocolate-brown delight that makes ordinary sandwich fixings feel like they’re on a dress-up date. It’s not a word I hear often in Portland, where the flavor is known by the mundane moniker “dark rye,” but I still ask for “pumpernickel” — it confuses the various bass players who work at the downtown bagel shops, and I savor the brief pause as they mentally scroll through the list of bagel varieties to determine if I’m not speaking clearly, or not thinking clearly. It’s a deliciously awkward moment that I let linger momentarily before begrudgingly enunciating, “Sorry. Dark rye.”
While I don’t like this word merely by default, it’s significant that I particularly dislike the word “boyfriend.” It’s a clumsy word that misrepresents at every syllable: it inaccurately describes an age (“boy”), understates the connection (“friend”), and generally makes even the most refined user sound as if she or he is bragging in a high school hallway.
Beau scores a linguistic trifecta: accurate (a boyfriend or male admirer,) efficient (quick and baggage-free,) and euphonious (say “Where’s your beau?” aloud and note the slippery sweetness of a subtle Cajun accent.) Its French origin has provided a proper pedigree for discussions of the heart, while “boyfriend” sounds like a word invented by Project Managers intent on simplified quantification. Beau is lovely, and worthy of resurgence, and I’m willing to lead the revivification. At least until my daughter becomes a teenager — then I will not like either of these words.
Moot makes me sad. Not because it’s a sad word, but because moot lives a sad life. It’s a role player in the game of words, sitting on the bench for vast stretches, patiently waiting for the sentence or statement where it can succinctly shine. Finally, the perfect opportunity arises, moot prepares to step in and carry the day, only to have the author squander the opportunity by writing or saying, “the point is mute.” Mute? No. Mute means to silence, or to be unable to speak. Points are not mute.
There’s another layer to the sadness — moot was once defined as a point that is open for argument, but generations of misuse have led the OED to define its “North American use” (the phrase reads like an indictment of our cavalier approach to linguistic accuracy) as “having no practical significance.” That’s what Rick Springfield meant when he sang, in regard to Jesse’s girl, “I want to tell her that I love her but the point is probably moot.” Had he opted for the original meaning, there might have been room for debate about the value of professing his affections. Instead, Rick resigns himself to clinging to empty wishes. Just as well, because if Jessie’s girl is anything like me, she would have said, “Are you sure you don’t want to tell me irregardless of the risk, mister soap star?”
Don’t bother with Merriam-Websters — it’s not a real word. But it should be. And not simply because it’s mine, and I have the hubris to haughtily propose we recall every dictionary and post an addendum to the already crowded “C” section. Courageon should be a word because there is no other word that says what it says, and the goal of adding a new word is to expand our lexicon to allow more nuance, not create a new phonic that duplicates an existing definition. (Can I get an ‘amen’ on that, chillax?)
A courageon is, of course, a courageous individual, a daring soul, a bold darer. Notice how the synonyms are all inefficient, two-word descriptions? Courageon enables us to be more concise and precise by using a single word where two were previously required. “Our little girl is a quite a courageon — she got right up in front of the school and read her essay.” If a curmudgeon is one who is full of curmudge (that’s true, right?) then it is a reasonable stretch that a courageon is one who is full of courage. Or to put it another way — well, I can’t put it another way. That’s why it needs to be a word.
Strumpet sounds like an epithet my grandmother would have uttered disdainfully to describe the hussies who stayed too late in the downtown clubs. She’d have meant it dismissively, yet even spoken as a pejorative, the word entices with a linguistic imprecision that begs precise clarification — not from my grandmother, but from the strumpets themselves.
Kids these days don’t seem to know the word, or they disregard it, preferring the vulgar efficiency of slut andwhore, graceless appellations that resonate with judgment and nearly always overstate their case. Strumpet may be a trollop, but its spirited freedom is more defiant of convention than morality. My grandmother wouldn’t acknowledge such a distinction, but I do. After all, harlot is in the eye of the beholder.