Adventures of a Word Nerd

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I am a word nerd. Etymology fascinates me. I try not to use 50-cent words when a dime’s worth will do, but sometimes I can’t resist tossing in a word that might not be used in everyday conversation. I have learned the hard way to double-check anytime I venture into territory commonly occupied by the likes of George Will — the longtime conservative columnist who has the average reader reaching for a dictionary every few paragraphs.

My trip to the literary woodshed came several years ago, when I confused “approbation” and “opprobrium” in a column. I used the latter, which means “a cause or object of disgrace or reproach.” So, an editor who is viewed with opprobrium is a fellow one should not take to lunch. A reader asked if perhaps I meant to use “approbation,” which means approval. The sentence made no sense with “opprobrium.” The reader, of course, was correct. So my effort to use a fancy word ended up making me look like a dummy to anyone who either knew what the word meant, or bothered to look it up.

I admit I have made mistakes galore in writing since then. Typos and words spelled correctly but which are homonyms, such as “right” and “write” plague all writers. It is the nature of the beast, but I just try to do my best. If I let every mistake that slipped into print devastate me, I would be in a strait jacket by now. Some would argue that might not be a bad idea, but thus far I’m resisting the notion.

But I am faithful about looking up words if there is even a niggle of doubt that it is the correct choice.  Dictionary.com is bookmarked on the top of my home page. As much as I love the feel and smell of books — especially chunky reference books — it is hard to beat this free site for making sure one is using the right word. Check it out sometime. I haven’t used a hard-copy dictionary in about five years.

What I do own and love to thumb through are books on word usage and origins. My oldest friend Frank recently shared with me his latest acquisition, “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” now in its third edition. I immediately ordered a copy from Amazon.

Bryan A. Garner went to law school at the University of Texas with a couple of  friends who are a few years younger than me. He teaches law at SMU and is ridiculously prolific, editing or writing more than 20 books on language and legal issues. At 942 pages, “Garner’s Modern American Usage” is heavy enough to break a bare toe if dropped. Garner is one of only two solo authors of a section in the “Chicago Manual of Style.” Hence, he knows whereof he writes. It is a fascinating read for word nerds.

Even if I don’t have something specific to look up, I enjoy plucking from this volume as if picking from a buffet line. Here’s the entry for GOP, a long-cherished newspaper headline abbreviation for the Republican Party. Some time back, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers dropped using GOP, claiming readers didn’t know it stood for Grand Old Party. Columnist William Safire, who also wrote many pieces on language, objected, “pointing out that he knows what a DVD is but doesn’t know what the letters stand for.”

Come to think of it, I don’t know what DVD stands for either. But Bryan A. Garner does: digital video disc originally, digital versatile disc these days.

I know. I could have Googled that, By the way, Google is not in the volume, an omission in my view. But it is so much more fun to go word window shopping, checking out the nearby entries, such as dybbuk, “ a dead person’s wandering soul that comes to inhabit the body of a living person.” Or that during the course of is considered a verbose version of during.

Several essays from the first through third editions make for fascinating reading before the actual entries begin with A. Choice between a and an. The last entry before a glossary and timeline of books on usage is zwieback, a sweetened bread that is baked and then sliced and toasted. Garner cautions it is often misspelled as zweiback.

Knowing that could come in handy sometime. You never know.


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