Remember, not every word is always what it seems to be

I love words - words such as lumbago, lugubrious, bodacious, humongous, oblong, galumph, galoot. But I especially love words that don't mean what they sound like.

Years ago, the TV show "Candid Camera" sent an interviewer to find out what people in the street thought the word "scruples" meant.

To most folks this isn't a tough word. The producers certainly edited out the pedestrians who correctly replied "principles" or "a sense of right and wrong," so what remained were those who had to guess based on what it sounded like.

Most of the honestly baffled thought it sounded like a skin disease, as in "Poor Uncle Ned. He had a bad case of the scruples. Itching drove him nuts."

The meaning of an unfamiliar word often can be divined by its context. One word that used to puzzle me, context or not, was "avuncular." Finally I looked it up. To my surprise, I found that it means "pertaining to or characteristic of an uncle."

Excuse me, but does avuncular sound as though it has anything to do with uncles? Even if it has an "unc" in it? Not to me, it doesn't.

Over the years, my list of words that sound like something else has grown. This doesn't mean I've expanded my vocabulary, only that I'm just as perplexed as ever.

Take "gubernatorial," a word we hear a lot during election campaigns. I know what gubernatorial means, but it sounds as if it has more to do with peanut farming than with being a governor. As far as I'm concerned, it's even spelled wrong.

"When he left office, former President Jimmy Carter returned to Plains, Ga., and resumed his goobernatorial pursuits."

There. That's better.

A dodgy word I much admire is "crepuscular." When I'd encounter this word, it usually was in reference to twilight or daybreak and I'd think: "What on earth could possibly be crepuscular about dawn or dusk?" For I assumed that it meant what it sounds like: creepy, crawly, disgusting, slimy.

So I looked it up. And, indeed, the dictionary defined crepuscular as "pertaining to or resembling twilight; dim, indistinct."

But it still sounds as if it pertains to the trail of slime left by a snail or a sinister fungus growing on a decaying log.

Speaking of which, a word that has crept into my consciousness lately is "fungible." Naturally, I thought this referred to toadstools or mold. Naturally, I was wrong. "Fungible" is much used by economists to refer to the free exchange of goods and services, not the spread of mildew.

And some words aren't what they used to be. When I started my rant, I mentioned lumbago. To those unaware that it once meant lower back pain, lumbago may sound like a new Latin dance craze, as in: "Let us throw caution to the winds, my dear, and dance the wild lumbago!"

In fact, the next time I need to leave early, I think I'll say: "Please excuse me. I must run. I'm late for my lumbago lesson."

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