The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

When you dis­cover a new word, it’s worth cel­e­brat­ing. The prob­lem is, if you’ve reached deep mid­dle age and the word is new to you, it’s prob­a­bly not us­able. There was per­haps a time when read­ers would be im­pressed by the odd ob­scure word, es­pe­cially if con­text or ono­matopoeia gave them a chance of clev­erly guess­ing its mean­ing. And there was even a time when they might have looked it up.

Now we con­front a para­dox. While dig­i­tal re­sources mean you can dis­cover a new word’s se­crets more eas­ily than ever be­fore, peo­ple are more im­pa­tient with any­thing they don’t un­der­stand than ever be­fore; no­body can be both­ered. That might be be­cause they’re read­ing the word on the phone on which they would need to look it up. But I fear that road will lead to im­pen­e­tra­ble semi­otic swamps.

Semi­otic it­self is a word you can barely use now in re­spectable com­pany. Here is a more or less ran­dom list of words — and I’m not go­ing to help you with the mean­ing of any of them — that were once quite the thing but would now turn off, alien­ate, an­noy and ul­ti­mately lose al­most all you read­ers: irenic, solip­sism, con­flux­ion, verisimil­i­tude.

Then there is a grey zone of words that are not quite dead but are well on their way, words such as egre­gious and ephemera, words Gough Whit­lam would hap­pily have used in big speeches. Such words tend to work bet­ter for op­po­si­tion lead­ers sound­ing im­pres­sive than for gov­ern­ments de­liv­er­ing re­sults — never for­get that Gough suf­fered the great­est sin­gle land­slide de­feat in Aus­tralian his­tory — but no­body would now use them in a speech aimed at any­thing re­motely re­sem­bling a gen­eral au­di­ence.

This de­prives us of half the plea­sure of dis­cov­er­ing new words. If you love words, you’re like an art col­lec­tor deal­ing in stolen works, who can hoard his trea­sures but not dis­play them.

There is a lit­tle more lee­way with for­eign words. Ev­ery­one likes the de­li­cious Ger­man schaden­freude, mean­ing the joy one takes in the mis­for­tune of some­one else, nor­mally an en­emy or ri­val. There is an equally splen­did Ger­man word, gluckschmerz, which means un­hap­pi­ness at the good for­tune of some­one else, typ­i­cally a friend you’re jeal­ous of, a mag­nif­i­cently un­wor­thy emo­tion that most peo­ple are guilty of at some time.

Us­ing for­eign words is one of the few ways you’re still al­lowed to be ver­bally pre­ten­tious in po­lite com­pany, though it can be eas­ily over­done. I pretty much gave up read­ing The New York Re­view of Books years ago when I came upon bil­dungsro­man in seven con­sec­u­tive book re­views (it’s pos­si­ble I’m ex­ag­ger­at­ing). This Ger­man word means a novel fo­cused on the de­vel­op­ment of a cen­tral char­ac­ter, in other words prob­a­bly most nov­els you’re ever likely to read.

Some words be­come in­tensely fash­ion­able with cer­tain sets, as bil­dungsro­man was for a time with book re­view­ers. Barry Humphries used to mock Aus­tralian jour­nal­ists for the use of the word largely, which is largely a mean­ing­less word.

I have a ter­ri­ble weak­ness for ad­verbs, an al­most wholly use­less if not cloy­ing (can I use cloy­ing?) ver­bal throat clear­ing of not very much ben­e­fit and largely re­dun­dant. This dread­ful weak­ness of mine was spot­ted by one of my ear­li­est crit­ics, a se­vere aunt who told me that the word very had no mean­ing at all.

This news­pa­per’s great for­mer ed­i­tor Les Hollings banned me al­to­gether from us­ing the word cur­rent, a word very nearly with­out merit and largely worth­less, nearly as bad as very and largely, in fact. (“There are more cur­rents in this edi­to­rial than in a cur­rant bun,” Les once justly thun­dered at me.)

Not the least of the im­pov­er­ish­ments of our pub­lic life is that po­lit­i­cal lead­ers use much smaller vo­cab­u­lar­ies than their pre­de­ces­sor. Don­ald Trump has taken this to an ex­treme. He hardly seems to know an ad­jec­tive be­sides beau­ti­ful and won­der­ful on the pos­i­tive and ter­ri­ble and hor­ri­ble on the neg­a­tive, al­most re­duc­ing lan­guage to Ge­orge Or­well’s dou­ble plus good and dou­ble plus bad. Still, at least he hasn’t de­clared that the prob­lem with the French is they have no word for en­tre­pre­neur.

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