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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 words—not even the Oxford English Dictionary.

Today's rarity
is tomorrow’s
favorite word.

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 one’s writing or conversation?

Don’t underestimate the pliancy of the English language. Today’s rarity is tomorrow’s favorite word.

As recently as
three years ago, a mischievous new German transplant meaning “delight in a friend’s misfortune” was unknown and unpronounceable to most English speakers.

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 friend’s 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 Proust’s tea-soaked madeleines, a rare word has the power to trigger decades-old memories.

It is remarkable
how we remember people for the words they use, especially the rarities.

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, “Where’s 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 mother’s perfectly stuffed green peppers on the table. I can still see and hear my father’s frustration as he searches for both the funnel and the plain English word to describe it, ligula being his second choice.

In the end,
words define us just as much as we define them.

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.



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 dad’s fondness for words, especially ones I’ve never heard before. But I hesitated when he asked me to join him on this project. I was haunted by the ghost of George Orwell—specifically, 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.

I had a dark night of the soul, but then I realized: George Orwell was wrong.

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. 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 similar—not identical—meaning. 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.

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.

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 don’t assume intimacy. Just as I would not pretend to be a close friend of someone I’d just met, I would not drop words I had just learned into a conversation.

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 you’d swear you’d never heard it before.


Once your antenna is attuned, your rare word magically starts showing up, even though you'd swear you'd 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 dead—not 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 you?

 

Excerpted from Rare Words from Levenger Press. © 2003 Jan Leighton and Hallie Leighton


About the Authors

Jan Leighton

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 word).

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 memorable words.

Hallie Leighton

Hallie started collecting words at thirteen when she encountered hussar and bivouac in Tolstoy’s 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. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico (peripatetic and arroyo).

After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in the college’s 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 Plato’s Euthyphro. She is currently a freelance writer.

Both Jan and Hallie live in Manhattan.