It’s boring if a writer keeps using the same word to describe an object, expression or place, or if only standard, expected words are picked. Sometimes it pays to experiment.

Recently, I was writing about a young boy with a pale, sorrowful face. His blond hair was beautiful, but I didn’t want to say ‘beautiful’. It’s one of those words that gets overused and now, whenever I see it in a book or a sentence in a magazine, I find its meaning is actually suppressed in my brain. It seems less potent, perhaps as a result of that overuse. So I looked for something tastier in terms of loveliness. Graceful is too poised and perfect. Good looking or charming are interesting alternatives, but have meanings I wasn’t aiming for and decorative, in this case, would be plain stupid. Then I saw pulchritude – and it really stood out. It’s such a harsh, unattractive word! How can it mean ‘beauty’? I looked it up properly and discovered an explanation of the contrast inherent in the word. The late David Foster Wallace was a contributing author to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. In one of his famous footnotes, he described exactly the disparity between the sound of the word and its meaning, referring to these types of words as paradoxical nouns. I’d never really experienced their full power as a reader until I read his list of examples….

Diminutive, Big, Foreign, Fancy (adjective), Colloquialism, Monosyllabic.

wordsA pretty interesting species of word, if you’re a writer. It’s weird that a word can mean ‘beauty’, yet be one of the ugliest collections of letters in the language. Just absorb the horror of the adjectival form of our case study, pulchritudinous. Quite a mouthful.

Grim they may be, but paradoxical nouns are fascinating. An elite subset of descriptive vocables (yeah, getting big-headed now) that give us the opposite sensation to the qualities they denote*. There are, of course, words that exactly describe, in both meaning, sound and sensation, the object, person or feeling they’re intending to describe, like flop, bubble, buzz or drizzle. These are ‘onomatopoeic’ – they sort of echo themselves, creating an enhanced overall experience for readers or audiobook listeners.

Anyway. Hope you enjoyed this mini-excursion into the wondrous world of appellations. Be sure to read on for future lexical insights. Most importantly, if you ever pick up a pen to write, make sure you get the most out of weird words.


*Apparently, their definition was removed from the dictionary, which, if true, is a pity in my opinion. For more about the footnote king, check out this touching tribute to his wordiness by Adam Sobsey, writing for Indy Week.

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