On FB today I clicked on a link to Slate magazine and read an article on fingerprint language: words that we take on and make our own, using them frequently and occasionally obsessively. As one who’s always been accused of using words that no one else will understand (not true, I just collect words that are very specific to very specifically define my intention, I promise), I was taken aback with some of the psychology in the article about how we react to the fingerprint words of others, and of our own.
I’ve noticed recently I’ve picked up the word fabulous from somewhere. A tad anachronistic (think British Ab-Fab), it’s fairly unusual in today’s lingo, but takes one’s excitement over whatever it is used to describe up a notch, IMHO. Fingerprint words of the past include: ethos, plethora, ennui, hubris, rats (emotive rather than the noun), hackneyed, juxtapose and oh, so many more.
I am always amused and pleased when I hear others use my signature words. These words are worthy of use by everyone, and any small part I may have in putting them back into play is gratifying. No pressure to differentiate my language, no annoyance that someone’s appropriated “my” words. Words belong to all of us, and the more we own, the more specifically we speak, the better we may be understood. At least that’s my take on it.
When I taught college English, I required my students to “collect” six words a week. These had to be words they read or heard that, if pressed, they couldn’t actually say what they meant. I asked them to look it up (definition, etymology) and write six sentences with the “new” word. Then I asked them to select one word and use it at least six times a day for a week. Research shows that if you do that, the word is “yours” forever. Students who got into the game were always amazed at how many words they just skipped over as they sought to understand daily communication from others. They were always stunned at how often their new words showed up once they themselves put it into use. What seem uncommon words aren’t really uncommon. They are just words we ignore.
Anyway, I enjoy words. Period. I don’t use certain words to impress, to condescend, or to frustrate others. They are simply the best words I know to say what I mean. Perhaps I know more words than you. Big deal. Perhaps I just know different words than you. Again, big deal. They are my words, and I love them.
So listen to the words all around you, and collect some of your own. They will be yours forever.