Words that Amuse; Words that Swing

Words that Draw Blood

Words that Stir Thought

Free Downloads of Three E-books

In 1990 Harper's Index noted the rather astounding fact that, over the previous fifty years, the vocabulary of the average American student had declined from 25,000 words to 10,000. A song released by Louis Armstrong at around the halfway point of that 50-year period -- Wonderful World -- speculated that the nation's young people would "learn much more than I'll ever know." Well, however admirably suited for multi-tasking in a digital age the minds of the young may have become, they certainly don't seem to have been learning more words, or whatever thoughts and information might attach themselves to the words lost from days gone by.

The study surveyed 6 to 14-year-olds, but I think we can be pretty certain that American students haven't done much catching up to bygone norms in high school and college either. It is probably safe to assume also that the two decades since the study have not witnessed a renaissance of verbal dexterity. Nor need we detain ourselves for long pondering the reasons for this decline. It seems pretty obvious that the demise of reading as it has been supplanted by electronic media, especially television, is the main suspect. At the beginning of the television era, in 1948, a comedian, Fred Allen, could refer to television as "agitated decalcomania," and presumably there were people then who had the slightest idea what he was talking about.

What we might profitably consider is the consequences for the human intellect of this trend. What have we lost when we lose words, beyond mere vocabulary size? Do we also lose a considerable part of our ability to think? Do we need words to think?

The two most prominent philosophers of the 20th century -- Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger -- would certainly answer "yes, and more." They believed that language is not just the sum of our thoughts, but of our entire personalities as well. We are what we say and think, and both processes are conducted entirely in language.

Well, we don't have to go quite that far with Wittgenstein and Heidegger to believe that our words contribute significantly to the sorts of lives that we are able to put together. Leave aside the self-help book bromides about the usefulness of a large vocabulary. As far as social upward mobility goes, they may or may not be true -- in the current climate of anti-intellectualism mixed with severe judgmentalism, a splashy vocabulary can get you labelled pretentious.

The true value of a strong vocabulary lies rather in the expansion of thought and the feeling of mastery that it gives you. Most writers will probably agree that finding just the right word is one of the most satisfying parts of the process. There is a sense of almost sublime transcendence when you have matched a phenomenon out there in the world with the perfect word. Plato would tell you that the word (or idea) actually preceded the phenomenon, and when you match up the two you have returned a small measure of harmony to the universe. The Book of John begins with a similar Platonic notion: "In the beginning was the word..."

Or, less sublimely, you might want to just verbally spank the living daylights out of some adversary. Or throw a word out there that gets a chuckle.

This website is set up to help you find the right word. I have gone through the dictionary -- Merriam Webster's Collegiate -- and culled several hundred of what we call lost words. The task was not to find the 25-cent words that nobody knows, the ones that will surely get you the "pretentious" label. What I was looking for were words that were in common currency during the high age of English literacy and thought -- let's say about 1750 to 1950 (and, yes, I know that Shakespeare, Milton, etc. predated 1750) -- but their usage has fallen off substantially in recent years. These are words that will be mostly familiar to people born before the television era, but may have been misplaced by those who once had them at hand.

It's a judgment call, of course, as to which words qualify as lost, and there will be some disagreement. No doubt several of these words enjoy continuing life in the UK, where the mother tongue is better preserved. Out in the former colonies, or at least the former colony where this project originates -- the United States -- the word base is shrinking rapidly. Eighty-seven different meanings and inflections of "Dude," along with a variety of tatoos and jaunty angles at which the baseball cap can be worn, just don't make up in expresssive power for the thousands of unique words that are being lost here.

The words were put into three categories -- words that draw blood, words that amuse, words that stir thought. The cream of the crop were selected out and turned into three e-books, offered here as a free download. It required many hours of slogging through the dictionary, and many decades of reading experience to acquire the judgment to pick out useful words that have fallen into disuse. The result is 428 of the choicest words any writer could have in his arsenal. These are the words that will set you apart as a writer.

Following are brief introductions to each of the e-books. They can be downloaded for free by clicking on the download bar. For those reading on, herewith a justification for why a person of good will would want to have at her beck and call words that draw blood.

Words that Draw Blood: Recovering the Lost Vocabularies of Vicious Invective, Withering Contempt and Sardonic Dismissal

In the summer of 2005 Hurricane George hit the eastern shores of the United States with a force not registered in many a year, leaving several prominent fatheads wandering around in an apparent daze, appearing to be in search of something dear they had lost. It was their intellectual manhood.

The Hon. George Galloway, MP, had journeyed from the mother country to offer his views on the American occupation of Iraq. He had been expected to play the role of inquisitee in the U.S. Senate, given the allegation that personal oil interests had colored his view of the Middle East. Didn't quite work out that way, as Sen. Coleman of Minnesota quickly learned after regally ascending the podium to begin the inquisition with expectation of the customary deference accorded Senate grandees. To his astonishment, Coleman heard himself being called a "lickspittle" of George W. Bush, and put on the defensive as Galloway lacerated American Middle East policies. It could not have been more out of key in a chamber in which providing political cover for larceny of the public purse is the usual order of business. It was exhilarating.

Not too long after that Galloway found himself confronted at a press conference by Christopher Hitchens, a Brit expat who, though once styled as a man of the left, had plighted his troth with American neoconservatives and embraced the policy of all war all the time in the Middle East. Responding to what he regarded as an impertinent question from Hitchens, Galloway went ad hominem: "You are a drink-soaked, former Trotskyist popinjay. Your hands are shaking. You badly need another drink."

What made this such a choice insult? Certainly it was not calling Hitchens a drunk. However on the mark, it is a bit ungentlemanly to suggest another is incapable of controlling his vices. Noting that Hitchens was once a Trotskyist would be on the mark for the one person in 50,000 who knows that the neocons are also rooted in Trotskyism and its vision of continual worldwide military agitation, but it is much too obscure and subtle a reference for most. No, what made this insult draw blood and become an internet viral phenomenon was the choice of a single word -- popinjay -- which means a strutting, supercilious person, a poseur of world-weary, cynical sophistication. A better descriptive word for Hitchens, at least in his public persona, cannot be found. It was right on the money, and many thousands of people felt a smile come over their faces as they recalled a long lost word and thought: "Yes, of course, Hitchens is a popinjay."

Now, whatever you may think of Galloway's leftist politics, if you don't think he's a fun guy you may be at the wrong website. Wouldn't our public life be a lot more enjoyable -- and informative -- if everyone used such vivid and precise language?

Haven't we lost something valuable in replacing the vicious invective characteristic of the early 19th century U.S. Congress with the high-minded pabulum of today, which indeed serves no purpose other than cover for business-as-usual corruption? As late as 1972, when the film 1776 was released, American writers could still imagine a scintillating discourse of this sort. John Adams sets the verbal tone for the convenors deciding the matter of American independence, letting loose with a steady stream of invective that is personal but apt, e.g., calling Richard Henry Lee a "strutting popinjay" and John Dickinson a "fribble." Since most of the participants in the convention are adept at delivering and receiving such needles, the effect is to establish just the right tension between antagonism, genuine thought articulately expressed, and camaraderie. The tension and balance that produced a great document and a consensus that made history.

Wouldn't our politics today be much more satisfying if it were thus, less verbally impoverished and having a few more pejoratives in circulation besides damnable "liberals" and the "religious right?" Don't we at least need a wide range of expressive words to identify and pin down the wide range of scoundrels out there?

The answer is not obviously "yes" for many Americans, who have long worshipped at the altar of positive thinking, and hold no higher wisdom than that of Bambi's mother: "If you can't say somethin nice, don't say nothin at all." And it is not obvious that they are wrong. Arguably, thoughts and words are indeed the origins of our material reality, as the American positive thinking tradition (the "religion of healthy-mindedness," as William James called it) has long held. If you think dark thoughts and speak dark words, won't your world become dark?

Actually, no, if those thoughts are honest social criticism, which the world badly needs as an antidote to the usual self-serving mendacity. Unless you're going to stick your head in the sand (in which case, cognitive dissonance will eventually catch up with you), you need to continually engage the culture you live in, if you want to continue to grow as a person. You need to see the world around you clearly in all its flaws for you -- and it -- to continue moving forward. Put otherwise: the truth will make you free.

That's not to say necessarily that words are the ultimate avenue to truth, as many religious traditions have noted. Zen Buddhism, for one, if I understand it correctly, tries to strip away the mental traps of logic and categorization created by words, in order that the world can be experienced unfiltered, whole and resplendent. Words were finally judged to be a dishonest distortion of truth by the poet Ezra Pound. The sum total of Pound's responses during the last interview he granted consisted of three words -- "Words no good."

But between here and that level of enlightenment where all is perceived from a god-like perspective, there is a world of culture that we must live in and engage through the categories set up by words, such as law, history, literature and so forth -- unless you have given up on culture, as Pound did. It's business enough for a good life to labor away in this earth-bound realm, but to do it most productively we need to describe it accurately. And for that we need words. Lots of them.

From a philosophically less lofty position, there are many people in the public realm who need verbal wounding, and we need the words to do it. It should be stressed here that these words are best used to address people in their public personas, to attack the ideas they put out there. Depending on the relationship at hand, verbally lacerating others in more privately inter-personal circumstances is usually not a good idea, from a practical or moral standpoint. But our public life badly needs the full range of expressive power that the English language provides. Perhaps the reason that the works of Shakespeare have resonated with more readers than those of any other author writing in English is that the author used more than twice as many words as any other writer. And the Bard could let loose with some really choice invective.

In any event, this website is being aimed in great part at people who follow the political discourse and probably enjoy a good argument about politics. For them, this elaborate justification of collecting words into this particular category no doubt is unnecessary. But if you're a writer without a political bent, someone who just wants to describe the world accurately and get at truth, you need the nasty words in your toolkit also. These words developed to describe an aspect of reality that will endure until human nature fundamentally changes.

The e-book contains 195 words. Examples of possible usage are offered for most of them. The examples reflect the writer's political point of view, but these are equal opportunity words that can serve well people at all points on the political spectrum. The examples that occurred to the writer usually involve servile politicians, the financial interests that own them, and the courtier press that attends dutifully to both like an accommodating headwaiter (to borrow a phrase from the greatest satirist of our time, Lewis Lapham), all of whom, by rights, should meet with universal disapproval.

Words that Amuse, Words that Swing

Some words just bring a smile to your face, or make you chuckle. Sometimes prose sentences just come together into a kind of cadence that sounds so good it seems almost poetic. This e-book gives you a collection of words that can create these effects.

What makes a word amusing? Hard to say. I'm of the opinion -- backed by absolutely no research whatsoever -- that the letter L is the funniest letter in the alphabet. Just check out the position of your tongue as you say it -- it's sort of like you're making a clown face. The second funniest letter, again in my opinion, is M. Third is the double O sound.

The e-book has a liberal sampling of words with these sounds. Beyond that, no coherent theory buttresses this collection. It was just a process of going through the dictionary and saying, "Yeah, that word will get you a smile or a chuckle." Strictly judgment calls with no clear criteria of selection.

By words that swing, we mean words that create a certain rhythm or cadence in the prose, often by adding extra syllables. Of course, paring away verbal padding is one of the first rules of writing. Saying it with fewer words and syllables is usually the better course. But sometimes that rule of thumb should be trumped by the need for sounding good. Written language sounds in the reader's ear, just as spoken language does. Sometimes you need extra syllables to hit that pleasing meter.

An example? How about "Four score and seven years ago?" You have two fewer words, one less syllable, and less danger of being misunderstood with "Eighty-seven years ago." But which would you go with? Along with the Biblical, epic tone appropriate to the occasion, the extra syllable and two extra words get you to that memorable cadence, one that sounds like a slow march of wounded veterans. Would we still study and cherish the Gettysburg Address today if Lincoln had begun with "eighty-seven" instead of "four score and seven?"

This e-book has several multi-syllabic words useful for creating cadence, most of which are also smile-worthy. Think about your cadence as you write, and how your prose sounds to the internal ear. The reader will certainly hear the sound of your prose, and its quality may well determine whether she reads on.

There are 149 words in this e-book. Many are used in a sentence, but generally there is no need for suggested usage of these words. It will be clear to you.

Words that Stir Thought: Recovering the Lost Vocabulary of a Mind Alive

Well, the bad news is that the English language appears to be far better equipped for inflicting verbal wounds than for stirring thought. Fewer than 100 words made the cut for this e-book. Several of them are borrowed from the German language, which seems more productive of words that correspond to states of deep thought. Wonder why. Maybe it's the traditional emphasis of German philosophy on exploring the depths of the mind, as opposed to the very limiting Anglo-American empirical tradition of confining ones investigations to data at hand observable by the senses.

Several of these words do fall under the category of philosophy, a discipline that, aside from the occasional revived Python sketch, gets virtually no exposure in the American public discourse. For a nation that was founded by a group of sophisticated political philosophers, the grasp of that subject today by even candidates for public office is tragically risible. George W. Bush caught a few jeers for tabbing Jesus as his favorite political philosopher in response to a question in the 2000 primaries, but it would be interesting to see some of the names that the other candidates came up with. Only in America could a hyper-cautious, mainstream corporate Democrat such as Barack Obama be confused with a socialist.

There is one particular lost vocabulary that Americans were especially in need of as the banksters collapsed the economy around them in the fall of 2008, but the words were not at hand. After 40 years of indoctrination into market worship, Americans had completely misplaced the old class-interest vocabulary of the Progressive Era. How do you focus attention on the interests of the rentier class and contrast them to those of everyone else if you don't know what rentier means? How do you analyze the banking system when you aren't familiar with terms such as fractional reserve system that 90 years ago were ready-to-hand knowledge for Americans? The e-book aims to revive some of these terms, because they are ever so timely.

There are 92 words. For each of them there is a suggested direction in which thought might proceed. But you can shove off in different directions with them, as you see fit. Virtually all these words need to get back into circulation if we are to think intelligently about ourselves as a society.