Give me an old-fashioned word

Not ones so disused they sound pretentious, but sturdy words with lots of life in them still.

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When I was a child, my grandmother routinely used a word that is all but extinct now. Once, while I was reporting on my progress in school, she smiled with genuine pride and said, "Well, isn't that grand." Try as I may, I still can't come up with a better word for my achievement. "Terrific" would have been over the top, and "nice" too neutral for a doting grandmother's needs. So yes, my success in school was grand. Mighty grand.

I like old-fashioned words. Although I don't believe I actually ever used the word "galoshes" as a kid, my great uncle Bill was a firm believer in proclaiming their virtue at the first hint of rain, and I can still remember an older neighbor lady in my New Jersey neighborhood inveighing me and my friends to "Stay off the macadam!" because of the traffic. I had never heard such a word for a paved road before, but the force of the woman's admonition drove its meaning home for me and kept me out of harm's way.

Likewise, who today says "stockings" for "socks"? Who, besides my mother, packs a "valise" with things from her "chifforobe"? Or refers to a little lea­guer's line drive as "splendid"? Once, as a boy, I was out roughhousing with my friends (but not on the macadam!). This brought yet another watchful neighbor to her front porch to demand, "What is this, a hullabaloo?" I had never heard the word, but I knew that I liked it. I don't think I have ever used the word myself, but I keep it handy, just in case some kids try to mix it up in front of my house.

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All of these words are outdated but they still have a pulse, because there are still people around who use them. My father, a World War II vet, also said "grand" (he got it from his mother). My own mother still differentiates between a valise and a suitcase (a valise is small, intended for no more than a weekend away from home). And journalists who aspire to the literary will sometimes drag "hullabaloo" out of mothballs to make a point. (Title of a New York Times review of a children's musical: "A Lot of Hullabaloo Over a Shallaballah.")

There are, to be sure, words that have been dead as doornails for a very long time. My affinity for these is only academic, because it would be pretentious to resurrect them for ordinary use. Take "slugabed." It's a wonderful word for someone who lies in bed out of sheer idleness. Shakespeare is said to have invented it for "Romeo and Juliet." It occurs in the scene in which the nurse comes to wake Juliet and declaims, "Why lamb! Why lady! Fie, you slugabed!" This word has been supplanted by "sleepyhead," which is nice, but it certainly doesn't have the oomph of "slugabed."

And then there's "woebegone," which Garrison Keillor appropriated for the fictional Minnesota town of his radio show. It is the perfect word, but it died a long time ago and Mr. Keillor has made it his own, spelling it "Wobegon."

Last, there are the words that are in between the marginally quick ("grand") and the dead ("slugabed"); words that are so frumpy and adorned with tatting that they scream out "Grandma!"

Some examples: poppycock, balderdash, hobbledehoy, breeches. I think of these as novelty words, serving as linguistic party favors for special occasions.

I can't help thinking about these words, perhaps because we live in an electronic age when words are deferring to graphics: TV, movies, YouTube, smart phones, Wii. It makes me wonder if we are on a path to becoming a culture that deals exclusively in images. I sometimes watch my teenage son as he sits in front of the computer, mesmerized. He says not a word, and would not hear me if I did.

I am glad that I feel so little affinity for these electronic worlds. I prefer to go to the chifforobe, take out my valise, pack my breeches, and have a grand weekend in a place I haven't been before. I know this doesn't sound very exciting, but it beats the life of a slugabed.

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