Saturday, April 5, 2008

Useless words

There are really quite a few useless words in the English language. I saw one the other day in an online post:

tintinnabulation - the sound of ringing bells

This word is a waste of breath. Why not just say "ringing"? But it did me one favor: it sent me running to the dictionary. Do you ever spend time just flipping through the dictionary looking for words you never heard of? I do. Of course these days you can do it online. You can do everything online these days. (Well, almost everything). So I found a few more useless words I'd like to share with you:

eleemosynary - of or for charity; charitable
flagitious - disgracefully or shamefully criminal
rodomontade - vain boasting; empty bluster
scaturient - gushing forth, as a fountain

These words are useless because so few people know them that if you ever used them no one would understand you. Unless you're writing for The New Yorker.

Can you come up with some more? I have two rules. You must be able to look up the word at And it can't be a jargon word (medical, scientific, etc.)


Anonymous said...

I knew only 2 of these: tintinnabulation and rodomontade. Edgar Allan Poe used the word tintinnabulation to wonderful effect in his poem The Bells.

Your post reminds me of a story about William F. Buckley. On Firing Line his debating partner once asked him why he had said 'irenic' instead of just using the word 'peaceful.' Buckley replied, "I required the extra syllable."

Buckley was, of course, famous for using obscure multisyllabic terms not only in writing but in speaking. I think he liked making people go to the dictionary. And I understand he loved to read the dictionary as a child. But there are many reasons to use a less common word, often having to do with selecting the precise nuance of meaning, or to get the sound of a sentence just right, or to convey a particular ambience.

Our language will be immensely impoverished if the upcoming generation uses only the everyday (quotidian?) words. Perhaps Buckley was also standing athwart linguistic history and yelling, "Stop!"


Anonymous said...

Now, to respond to Bill's challenge: "eyot" is a word I had to look up when reading Tolkien. Is that familiar or obscure to most of you?

Bill Hensley said...

Figures you'd know a couple of them, Betty. You always were smarter than me!

I think I ran into eyot the same way you did. But when you mentioned it I didn't remember the definition until I looked it up again.

Funny you mentioned William F. Buckley, Jr. actually gave a quote from Buckley as an example of rodomontade. The interesting thing I noticed about a lot of these obscure words is how many of them can be used as put-downs directed at fellow members of the intelligentsia. Flagitious, rodomontade and scaturient all fall in this category. It seems when the elite start name-calling they reach for their dictionaries. :-)

Don said...

Crossword mavens (e. g. my lovely spouse) will have a stockpile of words that might qualify. Aglet, for example....