RARE WORDS: IF THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A WORD GENE, IT'S DOMINANT IN THE LEIGHTON FAMILY
To read more about the father-and-daughter lexicographic team behind
Rare Words, click here for their bios.
But first, read why Jan Leighton and his daughter, Hallie, have made collecting
rare words a lifelong pursuit.
“Like Proust’s tea-soaked madeleines, a rare word has the power to trigger decades-old memories.”
Rare Words is for language lovers
who are tired of seeing the same easy-to-intermediate words and who are hungering
for real toughies.
Most of the words are so uncommon that you may wonder whether we have made them
up. They are all authentic. Each one can be found in at least one English-language
dictionary. Not one dictionary, however, contains all 500 of these wordsnot even
the Oxford English Dictionary.
You might wonder how words that are so little known can be useful. If the purpose
of language is to make oneself understood, what is the point of dropping a word
like indaba into ones writing or conversation?
Dont underestimate the pliancy of the English language. Todays rarity is tomorrows
A generation ago, Richard Burton christened his yacht ChaLizma in honor of
his wife Elizabeth Taylor. The pun was lost on most; charisma was then an obscure
word. The word has since gained in currency what it has lost in charisma.
As recently as
three years ago, a mischievous new German transplant meaning delight in a friends
misfortune was unknown and unpronounceable to most English speakers.
As recently as three years ago, a mischievous new German transplant meaning delight
in a friends misfortune was unknown and unpronounceable to most English speakers.
Schadenfreude may still be unpronounceable (shah-den-FROY-duh), but today
it is less of a novelty word among English speakers, and in certain circles, a staple.
Even when we use words that remain rare, our use of these words will not be forgotten;
in fact, the words may help people remember you. Like Prousts tea-soaked madeleines,
a rare word has the power to trigger decades-old memories.
Recently, I ran across ligula while looking up another word. I was suddenly
transported to a kitchen in upper Manhattan and my childhood, hearing my father
say, Wheres the ligula? while looking for a funnel. Saying the word out loud,
I can picture the striated wood panels on the walls of our kitchen, the icebox in
the corner and even my mothers perfectly stuffed green peppers on the table. I
can still see and hear my fathers frustration as he searches for both the funnel
and the plain English word to describe it, ligula being his second choice.
It is remarkable
how we remember people for the words they use, especially the rarities.
It is a mystery how my father, born and raised in East Harlem, with no knowledge
of other languages save a smattering of Polish, was able to come up with an obscure
Latin word but not a common English one. But if he once unwillingly summoned the
word, the word now has the power to summon him, something no everyday word
could do. It is remarkable how we remember people for the words they use, especially
the rarities. In the end, words define us just as much as we define them.
In the end,
words define us just as much as we define them.
Hallie Leighton: “No word possesses an exact clone. There is always a tiny shade of difference in meaning that makes one word the most appropriate.”
I share my dads fondness for words, especially
ones Ive never heard before. But I hesitated when he asked me to join him on this
project. I was haunted by the ghost of George Orwellspecifically, this passage
from his essay Politics and the English Language:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are
nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon
ones, and unnecessary words...constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.
I worried that in the wrong hands, such a book could wreak havoc on the English
language. There was always the danger that it could contribute to fastuous, fustian
preciosity (showy, pretentious, excessive elegance of literary style). This
book had the potential to equip people who use language as a means to distance themselves
from others rather than communicate with them.
Perhaps, then, this book should be banned. Why teach perfectly decent writers the
word execrable when its Saxon synonym, loathsome, will serve them
just fine and make them more universally understood? Are we abetting bad writing?
I had a dark night of the soul, but then I realized: George Orwell was wrong.
I had a dark night of the soul, but then I realized: George Orwell was wrong. At
least on that point. Although many words have synonyms, some of which are more familiar,
no word possesses an exact clone. A synonym is just that: a word with similarnot
identicalmeaning. There is always a tiny shade of difference in meaning that makes
one word the most appropriate in a specific context. Finding the exact word for
the occasion is what makes writing challenging and rewarding.
You may ask when it is appropriate to start using these words. My advice is: not
right away. I treat words I have just learned like new acquaintances; no matter
how well we hit it off on a first meeting, I dont assume intimacy. Just as I would
not pretend to be a close friend of someone Id just met, I would not drop words
I had just learned into a conversation.
I treat words
I have just
learned like new acquaintances;
no matter how well we hit it
off on a first
meeting, I don't assume intimacy.
I might feel a little more familiar with a person after running into him or her
at a couple of parties; likewise, I would wait to see or hear my newly acquired
word used a couple times before using it myself. And you would be surprised how
soon you are likely to run into a word you have just met. Once your antenna is attuned,
your rare word magically starts showing up, even though youd swear youd never
heard it before.
This language of ours could stand freshening up. A number of words have become stale
from overuse. Awesome may have once been an awesome word, but today it is
unlikely to inspire anything, let alone awe. Rock
is deadnot the music genre, but the verb (as in That show rocked!). It died from
excessive use. There are far more interesting words out there. May we introduce
Once your antenna is attuned, your rare word magically starts showing up, even though
you'd swear you'd never heard it before.
Excerpted from Rare Words from Levenger Press. © 2003 Jan Leighton
and Hallie Leighton
About the Authors
Jan grew up in a multilingual household,
where he started collecting rare words when he was seven and heard his mother refer
to the movie theater as cinematograph.
Collecting uncommon words became a lifelong pursuit. He continued collecting during
his Air Force tour of Europe and North Africa (purlieu and zarf),
his music studies at the University of Mexico (berceuse) and his classes
in stage directing with Lee Strasburg (vitiate). He graduated from the American
Theater Wing in New York City in the class with Bob Fosse (fosse is a rare
A winner of more than two dozen performing
awards, Jan has portrayed more than 3,000 historical personages, including Joyce,
Twain, Shakespeare, Noah Webster and others who have enriched our language with
Hallie started collecting words at thirteen
when she encountered hussar and bivouac in Tolstoys War and Peace.
She continued her hobby while studying drama at the High School of Performing Arts
in New York City (scrim and réclame), and while reading Great Books
of the Western World at St. Johns College in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe,
New Mexico (peripatetic and arroyo).
After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in the
colleges classical liberal arts program, Hallie worked at Random House and in the
editorial offices of Alfred A. Knopf (pica and pixelate). She has
studied Hebrew, French and Latin, and continued her classical studies at Hunter
College in New York, where she translated Platos Euthyphro. She is currently
a freelance writer.
Both Jan and Hallie live in Manhattan.