Words are tools of the trade for a writer and editor. How a sentence is constructed, how well the modifiers convey meaning, how an analogy captures the spirit of a character, or explains a complicated concept can make it easy or difficult for the reader to understand the document of interest. Over the years of reading novels and writing both for personal and professional reasons, I have developed a fondness for particular words. Below I highlight a few of the words most memorable to me.
“Phenomenon” is a favorite of mine because perversely, it confounded me as a ten-year-old student. I was forced to participate in a district spelling bee because the winner was sick and I was the runner up. (I always wondered how sick he really was.) After a few rounds, I survived with about half the students that started. When my turn came again, I was asked to spell “phenomenon”. I had no idea, fumbled through it and lost the round. Despite my initial reluctance to participate, I was disappointed to lose and was determined to learn how to spell the word. Since that day, I have spelled it as I should have in front of those judges and it has earned its place as a memorable word in my vocabulary.
Sometimes, I unexpectedly encounter an unknown word while reading or listening to conversation. When that happens, yes, I look it up in the dictionary. The 30-minute evening news is not a common source for hearing an unfamiliar word, and yet, several years ago, I encountered “disingenuous”. After a few false starts, I found it in my dictionary: Lacking in candor; giving a false appearance of simple frankness. “Disingenuous” became a new favorite word for a brief period of time although I rarely have cause to use it much these days. Still, I recall how I learned the word and have embraced its characteristics in various writing ventures and verbal quips.
As the previous paragraphs demonstrate, I learn about words in the most interesting situations. During a one-on-one meeting with a former supervisor, he made a comment about a recent situation and followed that with “You look nonplussed.” I was confused because I thought it meant I was stoic and expressionless, and he said it as though something happened. After the meeting, I went to the handy dictionary and look up “nonplussed” and found its definition: To cause to be at a loss for as to what to say, think or do. This fit the situation perfectly because I was uncertain how to respond to my supervisor’s original comment. Knowing the correct meaning has enhanced my understanding of character reactions in novels where the word was used.
There are more stories behind words I find memorable. Everything from what I have learned doing bench research (e.g., dimerization of HIV RNA molecules prior to encapsidation, shotgun DNA libraries for high-throughput genome sequencing and contig assembly) to the joys of compound adjectives in my current position (e.g., low-copy-number plasmids) to liking the sound of a word (e.g., contemplate).
What is your favorite word or words and why?