More than 20 years ago, when I was in college, an acquaintance left a note and a gift on the coffee table in my apartment. I guess I had baked cookies and they ate a few. A single word from their note is still branded on my brain: “I give you this [gift I don’t remember] in recompense for the delicious cookies.” Recompense! I was so delighted by the word that I kept the note in a memory box for probably ten years. I still remember the person’s name who wrote it, and if ever I hear the word recompense, I think of them.
I also remember where I first came across the word jangle used to describe a person rather than a sound. It was in Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife:
Steffens took me to dinner and tried to calm my nerves, but even with several whiskeys in me, I jangled.– Paula McClain, The Paris Wife
The word jangled puts me in the character’s body. I feel tightness in my neck and a metallic discordance in my head and chest when I read it. One word. All that sound and feeling.
A handful of words trigger associations with specific individuals for me. Now whenever I am exposed to what I think of as “their” word again, I think of them. I associate obfuscate with my friend Daryl. Abattoir with my friend Elizabeth. Matt Mullenweg used ossify in a company town hall to describe doing something the same way so many times that it becomes rigid like bone. My friend Josh often describes himself as salty.
The beauty of these words is that they are singular words that paint pictures. They contain color and sound, sometimes touch and taste, and they create images in my mind. These words surprised me when I heard (or read) them, and I have happy associations with the people who used them.
I’m a fan of plain language. As Strunk & White advise, “Do not overwrite.” There’s no need to write utilize when use works just fine. Does anyone say the word utilize out loud except on career-related podcasts?
You might say that words like obfuscate or abattoir don’t sound like plain language. You wouldn’t be wrong. That’s what is so beautiful about them: they’re unexpected. When they turned my head, they came up in regular conversation. I don’t know that any of the words highlighted in this post would have stood out if they were surrounded by overly-ornate language. These words just happened to be the exact right word for the situation they were describing. Their precision made a lasting impression.