Eternally Vexing Words


The Apathy of a Cow

I have several dictionaries, some at home and some at my office. The one I consult with the greatest satisfaction is The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary of 1989. I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (available at a stunning discount at Amazon just now).

I also like the Merriam-Webster website. And one thing I like best is their “Top 10 Lists” feature. Today they presented the “Top 10 Words for Valentine’s Day”—not synonyms for “Valentine’s Day,” but words with special significance on this day of love, romance, and infatuation (three of the words on their list).

These “Top 10 Lists” follow a pattern. The word entry includes by a definition or two. Then there’s an example of the word in use, or a little background about the word—sometimes both. Each word entry is accompanied by a graphic, usually a photograph. This is an interesting element. I often wonder how the picture came to be associated with the particular word they are defining.

What do you suppose are the words most searched for on merriam-webster.com? Well, they have a “Top 10 Most Frequently Searched Words on M-W.com”—of course.

Here’s the list of “eternally vexing words”:

#1: Pretentious

#2: Ubiquitous

#3: Love

#4: Cynical

#5: Apathetic

#6: Conundrum

#7: Albeit

#8: Ambiguous

#9: Integrity

#10: Affect/Effect

Obviously, these words vex for different reasons. Item #10 is a pair of words that are easily confused with each other. Hence the need to consult a dictionary. The meanings for two of the words, “love” and “integrity,” seem clear enough. But maybe they’re looked up because they are words for abstract concepts of traits that matter deeply to us. The rest may simply be words whose meaning is easily forgotten, or words used with remarkable frequency given the comparative minority of English-speakers who actually know what they mean.

I’m intrigued by the choice of graphic for the word “cynical” on this list. The pic choice for “apathetic” is fun-clever. And why they have a photo of three YAs looking at a laptop screen for the word “conundrum” is a conundrum for me.

When learning a list of new words, it can be good practice to use them all together in a few sentences that form a short and coherent paragraph.

For example:

Pretentious people love to sprinkle their conversation with large words—or I should say, with unfamiliar, albeit short, words. The cynical person may note that ambiguous words are ubiquitous among the most pretentious pontificators, who affect apathy about the effect of their speech and, so doing, compromise their integrity. It’s a conundrum.

* * *

For the word enthusiast: If you’ve checked the link for the word “cynical” here, what do you think explains the choice of image to go with that word?

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