Of words and their worth

Of words and their worth

At least seventy years have gone by since I first discovered the delight of playing with language.  The place was a sandy beach in Wales where, as a schoolboy on holiday, I chanced upon an old man – a native of the place, I believe – who sat there in the August sunshine reading poems aloud and musing on them for whoever chose to listen. As I came by, he was just declaiming the closing lines of William Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”:

“…and then my heart with pleasure fills

and dances with the daffodils…”

He paused, and I heard him remark, almost to himself, that here was a poet whose very name defined a proper approach to his art – forever fondling words, and recognising their worth.

In later life I have been fortunate to encounter – in person or in writing – many another connoisseur of fine words. The late Ivor Brown set a memorable example with his little books, each treating the reader to a display of good words, too many of which (hebetude?  ganderglas? minikin?) had been cast carelessly aside by a hard-nosed society. In more recent years we have enjoyed Robert Macfarlane’s fine assembly of rich terms from the countryside, some fading, many now forgotten. For my part I have followed one of Ivor Brown’ trails, seeking out good words, particularly those with richness of tone and some subtlety of meaning, that have undeservedly been misappropriated and sometimes consigned to the shadows, if not to the sewers.

Just take, if you will, the word euphoria. I acknowledge its use to denote a sense of well-being, but even the Oxford dictionary raises a warning finger, reminding me that the mood in question is likely to reflect over-confidence or over-optimism.  Yet could a term such as euphoria not have served some more exalted purpose? When I close my eyes and roll the word around on my tongue it suggests ghostly whispering (“He was awakened by the sound of euphoria, echoing all around, as the moonlight played on his bedroom wall.”).

There are plenty of other words the very sound of which seems to carry with it some inbuilt meaning. Ingot is a splendid surviving example, clearly referring to a weighty body of precious metal. But consider then the term vomit; merely uttering it elicits only nausea and disgust. Yet here is a term, very close in structure to ingot, that could well denote a small metal object – perhaps a tiny coin (“1000 vomits = 1 ingot”). Too many other innocent terms have for that matter been similarly besmirched by an association with ill-health. Might one not expect to gaze upon acres of dyslalia flowers blossoming on every hillside in the spring, rather than encountering the term as denoting a tragically inborn defect of speech? Or take jaundice, unhappily applied to a pathological yellowing of bodily tissues, associated with a sick liver. This is a term that could better have served the noble languages of architecture or homely comfort along with terrace and valance. If I ever get to building a cathedral it will boast a fine chancel with multiple jaundices, to which folk will flock in admiration.

Some paired letters have an elegance all their own, ennobling the words in which they occur, a notable example being tw at the start of a word. Twine is far more distinguished than mere string, and twilight is the most romantic time of day, while twang echoes in its very soul the tones of string music. One would wish to speak equally well of twitter, gently portraying the innocent chatter of tiny birds; alas, we have all experienced the downfall of twitter, today merely denoting a gossip corner on the internet. No, we should cherish “tw” and I assure you that I have been building a little stock of new terms, built around it and available on request for appropriate usage.

We must also beware of discarding meaningful old words and replacing them with mere noises. Why did the honest old term wireless, favoured by our fathers, give way – perhaps under transatlantic influence – to the meaningless radio? And should the internet – the name of which carries neither music nor meaning – not from the outset have been termed the ethernet?

It is no doubt too late to recover some of the graceful words that we have lost, but there are many that we still need to cherish and use well, cautiously adapting them where necessary to meet changing times. They are the daffodils of a language and, like Wordsworth, we may, as we write, even find ways to dance a little with them.



Brown I (1944): Ivor Brown’s Book of Words. Jonathan Cape, London

Macfarlane R (2015): Landmarks.  Hamish Hamilton, London.

One comment on “Of words and their worth
  1. Rob Pigott says:

    You’re right Graham, we could be having much more fun with language if we allowed ourselves to be more playful.
    Years ago I was taught an old verb for when you’re removing those green leaves from the base of strawberries: you’re hulling them. I’ve used it ever since.
    And I enjoy the startling effect of transposing sensory words. For example describing a visual experience in auditory terms as in Kipling’s “….and the sun comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay.”

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