Friday, February 25, 2011

Here's a word barely worth knowing: coruscate. (Vocabulary 2011-4)

There are a few words I recognize slightly, but repeatedly have to look up. The verb 'coruscate' and its adjective sibling 'coruscant' are such words.

George Eliot uses that word and I knew I should remember what it means, but I had to reach for the dictionary. Then I knew why I never remember this word -- because except when some silly writer uses it, I have no use for it.

Coruscate is a Latinate word and as Latin contributions go, I guess it's okay. It means to flash or flicker, like a fire. It has a bit of a crackling sound to it, which is good. But it doesn't come close to at least a half dozen or more Anglo-Saxon words that capture that feeling of a sparkling flame. Consider twinkle or glitter or shine. Sputter and shimmer. Glitter and glow; gutter and glimmer.

Who needs 'coruscate'? But I bet you and I won't have to look it up again!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Word with No Definition? (Vocabulary 2011-3)

In George Eliot's 1871-2 novel Middlemarch, she uses the word 'worreting.' To the ear of a modern English speaker familiar with the words 'worry' and 'fret,' 'worret' sounds like an additional synonym for those. 'Worret' certainly suggests a ruminating, troubled state of mind. But of course words don't always mean what they sound like they'd mean, so I headed to a handy dictionary.

Where I found ... no listing for 'worret'!

As I have many occasions to use the words worry, fret, fuss and so forth, an additional synonym would be so welcome. Thus, I was a little frustrated. (Traveling, I'm away from my OED, where I'm guessing I will find its definition when I return home.)

However, I located a document on the Internet showing about a half dozen uses of the word in context, all occurring in literature written between about 1875 and 1915. From such context, the meaning of the word can be inferred.

Let's look at a couple or few cases.

The Middlemarch quote is:

Mr. Bulstrode could not enjoy life in their fashion, eating and drinking so little as he did, and worreting himself about everything, he must have a sort of vampire's feast in the sense of mastery.

Eliot also used the word twice in her 1859 novel Adam Bede. For example:

"They mean we shouldn’t be overanxious and worreting ourselves about what’ll happen to - morrow, but do our duty and leave the rest to God’s will."

In his 1871 study called Character, Samuel Smiles uses the word:

They have educated themselves in the habit of endurance, of not being easily provoked, of bearing and forbearing, of hearing harsh and even unjust things said of them without indulging in undue resentment, and avoiding worreting, petty, and self-tormenting cares.

Additional quotes use the word in much the same sense and I think we can reasonably conclude: worret is a lost synonym for worry or fret.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Everything Old is New Again
( Vocab. 2011-2)

This spring my reading group plans to focus on classics. In preparation, I've just re-read George Eliot's Middlemarch and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.

I've been struck by language and observations that seem so contemporary.

For example, writing in about 1870, Eliot makes a detailed observation on the social reality recently captured in the expression "eating out on." The point is that gossip and similar human events provide us opportunities for socializing.

But perhaps that's not so surprising; human nature is constant. More surprising to me are some of Dreiser's expressions. I was surprised when one of his late 1800's characters says the words "Come on, people." Or uses this expression I'd've sworn was born in the late 1960s: out of sight!

On the other hand, Eliot uses a number of words we don't use anymore. But prehaps we should.


When Eliot refers to 'any trash ... suspected of mean cupidity,' I assume a link of some kind with the word 'Cupid,' the impish Roman god who inspires love or desire. And, in fact, the words 'cupid' and 'cupidity' come from the same Latin root words. Yet, while Cupid has become rather lighthearted symbol of romantic love in our time, the word 'cupidity' has dropped from common use.

In my opinion, it's time to restore this solid synonym for 'greed' or 'avarice': cupidity.


And while we're restoring out of fashion words, I suggest another Eliot find: troublous. Meaning just what you'd expect, it can be a useful alternative to 'troublesome' and 'troubling.'