There is a scene in the new Harry Potter-linked movie in which the wizard hero taps a window with his wand and whispers the magic spell – “Fenestra” – and the glass shatters into a thousand shards.
After seeing a clip of this recently, I said “Oh, that’s fun: it’s Latin for ‘window.’”
“How do you know that,” demanded my wife.
Because it’s the root of one of my very favorite words, I explained: “Defenestration,” which means to throw something – or somebody – out of a window.
She paused. “There’s a word for that?”
There is. And once you know it, you’ll be amazed at how useful it really is.
All workmen have a bag of favorite tools. For a carpenter, it may be a hammer or a well-worn saw. For a cook, it might be a treasured sauté pan or a knife with just the right heft and balance.
For writers, it’s words; words that can capture an entire story, or convey a whole paragraph-worth of meaning in just a few letters. Certain words are, one might say, worth 1,000 pictures when deployed correctly.
“Defenestration” is one of the best, but there are many others that I love as much. Here are some of my favorite tools. Some are everyday users; some are special-purpose instruments that spend most of their time in the tool drawer.
“Vexed.” Long before Joaquin Phoenix made the phrase “I am terribly vexed” famous as Emperor Commodus in the movie “Gladiator” this word spoke to me. It means to be something slightly more than irritated, but somewhat short of angry. It has a lovely, arch politeness that can hint that the person to whom you are speaking should quit before his conduct becomes intolerably vexatious.
“Turgid.” This may not be a word for everyday use, though it is awfully fun to say. It means thick, swollen, muddy perhaps. Like a river. Or really bad prose.
“Epicaricacy.” Don’t fall for the myth that English doesn’t have an equivalent of the delicious German word Schadenfreude, meaning taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.
“Cloying.” My wife once used this term in a meeting with cooks at a restaurant where she worked. They didn’t believe it was a real word. But they also didn’t believe that the dish they were discussing was overly rich and therefore progressively less pleasant to eat as you went along. So what did they know?
“Seethe.” Technically a cooking term meaning to prepare food by boiling it, but most useful when used to describe what happens to someone who has moved well beyond vexed.
“Cleave.” Quite possibly the only word in English that has two exactly opposite meanings, making it the only word I can think of that is its own antonym. One meaning is to cut something apart, like what you do to a chicken with a cleaver. The other means to stick closely or adhere to someone or something, as in a husband “shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” (Turns out the King James version of the Old Testament uses the word both ways; the New Testament uses only the second meaning.)
“Preposterous.” This word has become increasingly useful in the political environment of the last year or two, meaning something that is absurdly at odds with reality or common sense.
“Unctuous.” Nominally this refers to the greasy or slippery texture of metal or stone (it can also refer to the slippery mouthfeel of food or wine). When applied to a person trying too hard to ingratiate himself with you, however, it takes on certain poetry.
“Precious.” Diamonds are precious. Babies are precious. Puppies and kitties and other cuddly things are precious. But the word becomes delightful when used to mean something that is so cute that it is nauseating.
“Sanguine.” Another lovely Latin root, from the word for blood. It has come to mean optimistic or cheerful, particularly in the face of obvious adversity or evidence that you really should be less, well, sanguine about things. The same root is behind the occasionally useful word “exsanguinate,” which is something you never, ever want to have done to you, at least if you are sanguine about the prospect of remaining alive.
“Lachrymose.” How I ever got along before learning that there was a single, elegant word meaning an ostentatiously tearful display of emotion, I don’t know.
Do you have a favorite word? Some incredibly useful linguistic tool that you trot out for just the right occasion? I am always eager to learn new ones – please share from your bag of tricks.