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.