As we speak, as we write, we edit as we go. One of the things we do as we auto-edit is look for synonyms in order to keep from repeating words – especially adjectives. But favorite words are like chocolate; our sweet tooth gets in the way of our earnest self-editing and we again pop one of them into our conversation or our writing.
VAGUE is one of my favorite words. Its spelling, first of all, appeals to me. Its GUE has an appealing French ambience. To a Francophile like myself, who is charmed by the Gallic propensity for abstraction, all those French words that end in a silent “ue” are ornamental signposts pointing to the conundrum: what is our place in time? If VAGUE were spelled vaig or veig, it would not be one of my favorite words.
When it comes to its utility, most people will agree that VAGUE is an extremely useful word – perhaps too useful. Not only can it describe a large range of indefinite situations, but it has a softening effect, a palliative effect. “She was a little vague about what she did last night” is kinder (to both the speaker and the subject) than “she wouldn’t give me the details of what she did last night.”
But VAGUE is, well, vague. “Through the mist he could see the vague silhouettes of the trees at the edge of the meadow.” The image in the mind that that sentence evokes is indistinct compared to that evoked by “Through the mist he could see the blurred silhouettes of the trees at the edge of the meadow.” I can clearly imagine the blurred silhouette of a tree, but not so clearly the vague silhouette of a tree.
Favorite words can weaken the effect of what one is saying or writing.
I love NEVERTHELESS, and I don’t know why it isn’t one of everyone’s favorite words. It is a lovely word – buoyant, euphonious, spacious. It brushes across the mind with fairy wings. And it has fairy powers. It can transform that most dire of moments, when suddenly a viable alternative to what we are doing or thinking looms before us, into a Zen koan, nonsensical, yet profound.
Recently I was reading Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God and noticed that an inordinate number of paragraphs began with the word “yet”. It could be that “yet” is a favorite word of Eagleton’s. More likely, Eagleton is one of those unfortunates who, as they speak or write, simultaneously become aware of all the objections that can be made to what they are saying. (A case of hyper-auto-editing, perhaps.) If only Eagleton had used “nevertheless” instead of “yet” it would not have seemed that he kept beating himself over the head.
My fondness for PATRICIAN has Freudian roots – in the same generalized way that Medicare can be described as Marxist or Mozart as hailing from Eurasia. I had, of course, been familiar with the word for years and had developed a vague idea of what it meant from the different contexts in which I found it. I knew that it derived from the Roman upper class and sort of described a male who was aristocratic, attractively conservative, socially self-assured, reservedly superior.
It was not until I encountered "patrician" being used for a character who did not fit into the broad outlines I had assigned to the word that I finally went to the dictionary and looked it up. I discovered that my concept of PATRICIAN had been more or less on target. In the book I had been reading (I could have sworn it was The Lord of the Rings, but I have been unable to track the word down there) it was being used in a sense specific to the book’s fictional world. However, in exploring PATRICIAN's meaning for the first time outside of the context of a particular text, it occurred to me that it could be used to describe my father – something I never would have grasped simply from the context of my father in my life.
It’s always nice to have another cubbyhole to help organize the chaos of the past, so I became fond of PATRICIAN, just as I was fond of my father, particularly of his patrician side. By using "patrician" more often than really called for to describe someone I’ve seen or someone I imagine, in a close, deep, until now unarticulated way, I am honoring my father’s memory.