Sean Scully

Sean Scully is editor of the Napa Valley Register. You can reach him at 256-2246 or sscully@napanews.com.

Little did I know there were so many Logophiles among our readers.

My column of last week, listing a few of my favorite words, brought out a small flood of responses from lovers of words, readers and colleagues alike, each offering a list of treasured words. I though it only fair to share.

From my colleague Dave: “I like animal collectives: a gam of whales, a murder of crows, a pride of lions.” Among my own favorites on this list are a “Wake” of buzzards and a “Congress” of baboons.

Caller Rodney offered “Perfidy,” as in treachery, betrayal or dastardly deeds. Or as in “Perfidious Albion” (that being England in the eyes of an anti-British French clergyman of the 17th century).

Reader Howard chimed in with a flurry of words dear to my heart as well: Clairvoyant, Obsequious, Poltroon, Disingenuous, Prescient, Whimsical, Serendipitous, Precise, Succinct, Self-Abnegating, Altruistic, Deprecate, Loquacious, Verbose, Auto-Didactic, Acerbic, and Obstreperous.

Comedian Steve Martin once managed to use two of these words in a single verse of a song, known as The Grandmother Song, when he recalled the advice of his Granny: “be courteous, kind and forgiving” and also “be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant.”

Howard also recommended that anyone interested in colorful words and language should read the legendary (and sadly increasingly forgotten) 20th century columnist H. L. Mencken. I second that. Mencken was one of my father’s favorite authors and I have his well-worn books of Mencken essays, including his absolutely classic review of President Warren G. Harding’s inaugural address, which he said was “so bad a kind of grandeur creeps into it.”

“It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh,” Mencken wrote. “It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

One wonders what he would make of the state of our politics today.

On Howard’s list, I particularly like Serendipitous, meaning arising from a fortuitous accident. I have always thought the thing that makes a newspaper so special is the element of serendipity: you come looking for one type of article, but you may by chance find so many more things in there that you never knew you were interested in.

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In a similar vein, reader Bob said, “I like ‘fortuitous,’ like when the Wine Train changes the traffic light progression just as I arrive at Trower and 29.”

My publisher Brenda conjured three good ones: Pugilistic, Legerdemain, Litigious. They’re all sort of related somehow: inclined to fight, performing magic (or deceit), and inclined to sue.

Reader Roger offered a word so obscurely useful (and so full of fun Latin bits) that I am astonished I have never heard it before: Antepenultimate. It combines the Latin prefix meaning “before” with the word Penultimate, meaning next to last. Any guess as to the meaning? How about second to the end in a series, as in “Wednesday is the antepenultimate day of the work week.” Better than “Hump Day.”

Another word that was new to me, but which is oddly useful, comes from reader Barb, who offers up “Petrichor,” or the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. The definition alone conjured up a lifetime of rainy memories.

And as I had hoped when I wrote last week of the word “Cleave,” a reader came up with a second English word that has two opposite meanings. Ann writes that “Sanction” can be its own antonym too, meaning to give permission or permit an action and also to punish an action. “I think I once found a third word that meant its opposite, but it does not come to mind today,” she wrote.

Thanks for sharing, fellow Logophiles.

You can reach Sean Scully at sscully@napanews.com or 256-2246. Follow him on Twitter @NVREditor.

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Editor

Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.