Isn’t it wonderful when you discover an author whom you have not read before that is so good that even thinking about sitting down to read elicits a frisson of anticipatory joy? I’ve recently encountered an author whose short fiction is so engaging that I just cannot put it down–in fact I have yet to encounter even a mediocre story in nigh 2000 pages worth of T.C. Boyle’s fabulous, liquid prose.  As an added bonus he has a remarkable command of vocabulary; in fact, he probably has the largest ken of vocabulary of any modern author I’ve read, which is a logophile’s dream.

When I was in college one of my English professors told me that I shouldn’t use “big” words like “irrefragable” in my writing since it would not only seem pretentious, but would also seriously detract from my prose.  T.C. Boyle is one author of adult fiction who is not only unbelievably creative, but also has the ability to get away with using such words as “irrefragable” (in fact, in one of his stories he did just that, much to my delight!).  I have been most entertained by his use of words that also appear in Membean’s lexicon, so I have included some exemplars from his stories and one novel (World’s End, winner of the PEN/Malamud award) to illustrate his phenomenal vocabulary usage:

Through all that followed–through the patroon’s interminable speech of admonition and reconciliation, through the commis’ pointless pontifications and the schout’s terse and hushed testimony, Jeremias never uttered a word but for ja and nee.  World’s End

Now, as she pulled up to the silent bungalow, the bungalow that sat newly painted in a lattice of leaf-thrown shadow, looking placid, normal, staid, she loosened her grip on the wheel and cut the ignition.  World’s End

And how do we award this exemplar of evolutionary impetus?  Whales Weep

He was a renegade, a solitary, airlifted in a groggy stupor from Yosemite, where he’d become too familiar with people.  The Hat

There was a building ferment, a muted undercurrent of dissent and anger, the students chanting, people shouting out, until the sour-looking woman–the chairwoman, or was she the superintendent?–slammed the flat of her hand down on the table.  Bulletproof

It goes on and on.  Beautiful.

Sometimes a word that I have never seen before, or don’t remember seeing, will pop up in Boyle’s stunning prose, and I will luckily divine its meaning via etymology.  One such word I saw the other day in World’s End was salification: “…was decorated with blue ceramic tiles depicting biblical themes like the salification of Lot’s wife and the beheading of John the Baptist.”  Having a knowledge of Latin roots here is quite handy: “sal” is the Latin root for “salt” (from which we get such words as “salary,” “salami,” “sausage,” “salmagundi,” “salad,” and “salsa,” et al.), “fic” is a root which means “make,” and “-ation” means “action.”  Hence, Lot’s wife here has been “made into salt,” a reference to the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Precious.

I highly suggest reading TC Boyle Stories, and the recently published TC Boyle, Stories II, both of which I devoured within the span of six months, and practically mourned when I turned over the last page!  Luckily he has also written nine novels.  Wunderbar!  

 

 

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Everybody has their favorite words, and we at Membean are no different.  Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason behind why we like a particular word, whereas at other times there can be a highly specific rationale. So, here is a list of our favorite words, polled at the office, and listed in no particular order of preference:

1.  defenestration:  the act of tossing someone out a window.  From the Latin word fenestra: “window.”  cf. French: fenêtre

2.  stygian: extremely and unpleasantly dark, gloomy, and frightening; pitch-black.  A reference to a river in the Greek underworld, the Styx.

“I have a strange inexplicable fascination with that word.  Probably all the fantasy books I consumed when I was younger.”

3.  tenacity: unwilling to yield or give up; dogged.

“This has been my lifeline out of some daunting circumstances.”

4.  meticulous: very precise, conscientious attention to details.  From a Latin word meaning “timid, fearful.”

“Meticulous is something I’d like to be, though more often than not, I end up being light-years away … but I am nevertheless tenaciously working towards it!”

5.  purfled: embroidered, decorated on the edges.  From Middle English.

“I just love the sound of this word.  When I first saw it when reading Chaucer, I fell in love.”

6.  evanescent: lasting but a short time.  From the Latin word vanus: “empty, hollow, illusory.”

“This word sounds like what it represents: so fleeting, so ephemeral …”

7.  mellifluous: gentle and pleasant to listen to; sweet-sounding.  From the Latin words mel: “honey,” and fluo: “flow.”

“I’m a music lover.  My sister is a professional singer back in India, and she indeed has a mellifluous voice.”

8.  nonplussed: so surprised and confused that you are not sure what to do.  From the Latin words non: “not,” and plus: “more.”  Your brain simply can “not” take in “more” when it is nonplussed.

“I love the image Membean has for nonplussed.”

9.  autochthonous: native or indigenous to an area.  From the Greek word chthonos: “earth.”

“It is a challenge to spell, and has a befuddling root in ‘chthon.’”

10.  sangfroid: calmness and composure in the presence of troubling circumstances.  From the French words sang: “blood,” and froid: “cold.”

“What you need when trying to pronounce it for the first time.”

11.  kismet: fate, future, destiny, or fortune.  From the Arabic word qasama: “assign, allot.”

“Because it appeared in a random sentence in an e-mail from a very friendly teacher before we’d even added a Level 6.  Thanks Sue!”

12.  transcend:  surpass, exceed, be or go beyond the limitations of.  From the Latin word scando: “climb, mount.”

13.  scintillating: sparkling or shining brightly.  From the Latin word scintilla: “spark, glittering spot.”

“Great word.  Like the sound of it.”

14.  Herculean: very hard to do;  a “Herculean” task requires the strength of Hercules, the strongest of the Roman mythological heroes (Greek: Heracles) to complete.

“I think it’s a fun word to use in certain contexts and it tends to make my friends laugh when I pull it out.  Naturally, I like that it’s an adjective directly derived from a character from classical myth.  Isn’t it cool we have words like that and Sisyphean?”

15. schadenfreude: the taking of pleasure in the misfortune of others.  From two German roots which mean “damage, harm, injury” and “joy, pleasure.”

There you have it.  We hope that we have stimulated you to think of your favorite words!  Let us know if you have one that you really like, and we’ll include it in a future post. Enjoy your summer reading–and perhaps you’ll come across a word that just makes you happy, or opens up a whole new world for you.


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In my last post, I spoke about how the word origins of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs make those words easier to understand and remember.  In this post I will finish the word origins for the last five parts of speech: interjections, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and expletives.

interjection:  The word interjection comes from the Latin prefix inter-: “between” and the Latin root word ject: “thrown.”  An interjection, which usually expresses an emotion or feeling, is something said that is “thrown between” other parts of a conversation to interrupt them, such as “Hey!” or “Ugh!” or “Wow!”  Whoa!  It can stand by itself!  

preposition:  The word preposition comes from the Latin prefix pre-: “before” and the Latin root word posit: “placed.”  A preposition is etymologically a word which is “placed before” the noun following it (its object), such as under the car, by the window, and over the hill.  A “preposition” indicates the position of its object or how that object is “placed” in relationship to another noun, such as “Paul is under the car” (Paul’s spatial relationship to the car), Sasquatch is by the window (where Sasquatch is in relation to the window), and Bilbo is over the hill (where Bilbo is in relation to the hill).  Note that the preposition and its object together are known as a prepositional phrase (by the window, over the hill, under the car).

conjunction: A conjunction is a part of speech which has its origin in the Latin prefix con-: “with” and the Latin root word junct: “joined.”  A conjunction therefore enables one word or words to become “joined with” one another, such as in the sentence: I like pie and cake, but you like mice or spice.  Here, the conjunctions and, but, and or have not only caused the words pie and cake, and mice or spice to be “joined together,” but also the complete sentences “I like pie and cake” and “You like mice or spice.”  One of the coolest grammar songs ever written was Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction.”  If you’ve never listened, stop your grinning and drop your linen and click on that link!

article:  The word articles, or the words “a,” “an,” or “the,” has its origin in the Latin word articulus: “precise part, division.”  An article points out the “precise part” of something larger.  Imagine, for instance, that you are in a soccer stadium where you might see “a” soccer player, “the” seat where you are, and “an” apple in a concession stand.  The words “a” or “an” are indefinite articles because they don’t point to a specific thing, but rather to a nonspecific member of a group of things (one unnamed soccer player, one nonspecific apple among many), whereas the definite article “the” indicates a particular thing or object to which you are referring (the specific seat where you are watching the game, not just any seat in the stadium).  Note that some grammarians do not consider articles to be a separate part of speech, but rather a type of adjective.

expletive:  Although some grammarians do not recognize the expletive as a part of speech, nevertheless it makes sense to me that it is one (some grammarians lump it under a type of pronoun, although it does not refer to a noun).  The word expletive comes from the Latin prefix ex-: out and the Latin root word plet: “fill,” as in something which is “complete” is “filled” all the way.  An expletive “fills out” a sentence.  Can you spot the expletive in the following sentence?: There is an army of ogres in my closet.  Yes, the word “there” is the expletive, which can come before any tense of the verb to be, as in “There weren’t many goblins in my closet.”  You wouldn’t have a sentence if you just said “is an army of ogres in my closet,” and “weren’t many goblins in my closet,” so “there” rounds or “fills out” the sentences.   Sometimes “it” can be considered an expletive when its referent isn’t clear, such as in: It is going to rain.

And so you have it!  Here’s a short recap to sum up why these parts of speech were so formed:

interjection: a word “thrown between” other words in a conversation

preposition: a locator word “placed before” its object

conjunction: a word that enables other words to be “joined with” each other

article: a part of speech which specifies a “precise part” of a whole

expletive: a word which “fills out” a sentence

It is my hope that you now better understand what a part of speech is, and can now recognize them more readily!

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How Word Origins Help Understand Parts of Speech: Part I

April 20, 2014 Roots

Parts of speech tend to be tricky to conceptualize, so it is helpful to keep in mind their word origins when learning about them.  The words noun, pronoun, adjective, verb, and adverb were all originally named as such for a specific reason, not simply randomly assigned.  Knowing why these five words were called what they were [...]

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The Curiously Blinding Linguistic History of “Inveigle”

April 1, 2014 Roots

Some English vocabulary words have followed seemingly strange paths to get to their present-day forms.   In a previous post, for instance, I discussed how the word “sovereign” was derived from the Latin word “super” through Grimm’s Law’s interchangeability of the consonants “p” and “v.”  The curious history of the word inveigle had its origin in [...]

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Grimm’s Law: Interchangeability of Bilabials: “B,” “P,” “F,” and “V”

March 2, 2014 Roots

Grimm’s Law is a handy linguistic rule to know when it comes to figuring out whether words are related to one another, that is, are in the same linguistic family. Jacob Grimm, as he and his brother Wilhelm listened to different dialects as they were collecting fairy tales throughout the German countryside, noticed that particular [...]

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Centripetal and Centrifugal Forces: Fact vs. Fiction

January 28, 2014 Roots

Latin root words can often solve difficulties when it comes to defining similar words.  For instance, centripetal and centrifugal forces are commonly taught in physics classes, and are almost as commonly confused.  Let’s examine these two words in light of their Latin roots, which help to clarify which force is which. Centripetal forces make an [...]

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Word Origins of “Sovereign” and “Allege”

January 5, 2014 Roots

The study of word origins is one effective pathway towards understanding and retaining the meanings of English vocabulary words.  Often an origin is clear; a given Latin root, for example, will not change its spelling when it comes into English.  For instance, the Latin prefix super-: “over, above,” gave English various words, such as superfluous, [...]

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NCTE 2013 is this week!

November 18, 2013 Roots

We’re looking forward to our second trip to the NCTE Annual Convention.  Las Vegas was great fun last year, and we made numerous memorable connections.           We’ll be hanging out at booth #1602.  Stop by to say hello, and tell your friends to do the same.  It would be great to [...]

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At Cary Academy or NCTE this week? Stop by and talk to us.

November 11, 2012 Annoucements

This week promises to be both a busy and an interesting one for us. On Thursday (Nov. 15) we’ll be at the Southeastern Brain conference at Cary Academy in Cary, North Carolina.  Cary Academy uses Membean for both Middle and High Schools and we are excited to meet teachers and students we’ve primarily interacted with [...]

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