Favorite Words of Dictionary Editors

alex atkins bookshelf wordsPeter Gilliver is a diehard word lover with the perfect job: he is an associate editor with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and author of The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Gilliver and his fellow editors at the OED certainly have a lot to say about words — they are a very opinionated lot. As lexicographers one of the questions they get asked all the time is: what is your favorite word? A number of them will groan or roll their eyes, and state emphatically: “I don’t have a favorite word!” Poppycock. Any one who collects or loves something always has at least one or two favorites (in a survey, even parents admitted that they had a favorite child, but would NEVER admit it to their kids). So put your lexicographic pretensions aside and cough it up!  Gilliver was able to coax some answers from some of the editors; here are some highlights.

“A favorite word of mine is geoduck, because the pronunciation is at such variance with the spelling and consequently demonstrates the basic flaw in syllabification.”

“Inflammable is the first word I remember asking “why” about as a child: why does it mean the same as flammable, when you”d expect it to mean the opposite?”

“As a non-English speaker, I find awesome an awesome word. I don”t have in my mother tongue a direct translation – impresonante is the closest translation, but it is not exactly the same.”

“Bollocks is a word with a glorious ring to it, which can be incredibly comforting to use in stressful situations; it also has a wonderful versatility: able to mean anything from the very best (“the dog”s bollocks”) to the very worst (“complete, total and utter bollocks”). Given its somewhat risqué literal meaning, it carries with it a cheekily subversive charm: able to shock, but not too much.”

“My favorite word in English is numpty, because it somehow conveys exactly what it is. I first heard it when I moved up to Scotland over twenty years ago; now it seems to be fairly widespread in English English, too.”

“I”ve had terrible trouble trying to decide what my favorite word is this week.  In the end, I”ve gone for stravaig. I like the sound of it and the idea it captures of wandering around without purpose but with enjoyment. “

“I first saw the word moribund in an article written by a colleague of mine. I”m just surprised at how such state or situation as a whole could be compressed and expressed by just one word.”

“It took me many years to realize what my favorite words really were, after flirting with a few others in my youth. The words I love are those that describe the English landscape—fell, beck, gill, tarn, crag, dale (with fell being my favorite if I had to choose). I like their simplicity and the fact that they provide a link to our surroundings that has endured for generations—1000 years in some cases. When I”m sitting in an office looking at a computer, thinking of these words makes me happy—they represent escape and freedom.”

“My favorite word is suboptimal, because it is a nice euphemism for something that is far away from being good.”

“My favorite word is one I use with my speech and language therapy students as an example of a “rule-breaker”. I recently had the pleasure of editing the entry for the word spleuchan, which is the only word I”ve ever come across whose British English pronunciation feasibly starts with four consonant sounds (/s/, /p/, /l/, /j/), and hence counters every textbook on English syllable structure. I retain a particular appreciation for smew.”

“Counterintuitive. I love its higgledy-piggledy/oom-pa-pa rhythm; and I love its suggestion that what you think is probably wrong. (For me, it so often is.)”

“I wouldn”t necessarily say it”s my favourite, but the word I seem to notice more than any other is inexorable—for some reason it always seems to trip me up a bit whenever it appears in anything I”m reading, so I find myself thinking vaguely fond thoughts of recognition whenever I come across it.”

“As a non-native English speaker, I like the word scratch. Just because of how it sounds, really.”

“I”m in the “don”t have one” camp. I do, however, have an “official” one for use in response to this very question: echt (italics essential). I like to make people happy.”

“I couldn”t pick a single “favourite” as there are too many that I like an awful lot—all for different reasons. It all depends on my mood. However, one that I”m currently extremely keen on is the transitive verb exeleutherostomize: it has a fantastic rhythm when spoken, that fact of its being extremely close to the original Greek appeals greatly to me (as a Classicist), and I think its meaning (“to say (something) freely”) is one that has carried significant political weight across a number of centuries. I also really like the fact that I don”t think it is has any particularly close synonyms—its meaning is quite unique!”

“Short answer: lineage. Long answer: My favourite word is in fact Dutch—schanskorven. It”s a horribly ugly phenomenon, cages with stones piled up to create “decorative” walls, but the word is just beautiful. I also love beschoeiing and bewegwijzering. For English, a close runner-up is longevity, because its pronunciation is utterly unexpected (at least for a foreigner like me), and because it”s a concept for which we don”t have a word in Dutch, and it”s always nice to find new words that elegantly express something you thought you needed more than one word for. However, its pronunciation is slightly uncomfortable.”

“Having been asked this question quite a lot, I decided many years ago that I needed a standard response, so I selected ombrifuge as my favorite word of choice. It sounds nice and it has a useful but neglected application.”

“I can’t say I really have a single, definitive favorite – but one that”s always stuck with me (since I was a child and had no idea what it meant!) is kerfuffle. When I was small I imagined that it was some kind of furry, loveable creature, a bit like a powder puff but with legs and a face.”

“I really like the word petrichor (“A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions”), because (1) I like the thing it signifies very much (2) there aren”t many nouns referring to specific smells I don”t think (3) the word itself sounds very fantasy-fiction-y (4) I think it”s a good name for a cat.”

Read related posts: Words Invented by Book Lovers
How Many Words in the English Language?
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
What is the Longest Word in English?
There’s a Word for That: Epeolatry

For further reading: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2016/10/lexicographers-favourite-words/


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