Every day, I get an email from one of those dictionary services with a word of the day. It seemed like a good idea to sign up for it. After all, I’d be learning something new every day, right? Well, sometimes right, sometimes wrong.
I’d say about a third of the time I look in my inbox and see a word I’ve never glimpsed before, even though I read so indiscriminately I’ve been known to peruse the ingredients of a cereal box when desperate. But, what to do with a word I’ve never seen before? I know the right answer to that. I’m supposed to open the email and plunge in and absorb the new word, its pronunciation and definition, and go around using it during the course of the day until I know it thoroughly or people start to avoid me, whichever comes first.
Usually, I don’t do that. So, I’m a slob, a lightweight, who considers she’s probably learned, then sometimes forgotten, all the words necessary to her limited world? Yeah, something like that. Why bother? I tell myself — and careen into some other website or another full of words I already know.
Another third of the time, I see a word that’s hauntingly familiar — like recondite, for example. Recondite! Now, there’s a word I learned decades ago, prepping for the GRE. I knew it then, but somehow, it just didn’t stick. So, I wade in and refresh my memory. Recondite, of course, means the same thing as abstruse, which is a word I only use when I’ve had too much to drink or I’m around people who are irritating me. Who knows when that occasion might present itself again? Recondite, recondite, recondite; not as poetic as placenta, placenta, placenta, but it will do.
Finally, there’s the last category — words I already know. Oh, give me a break, I think. Why am I wasting my time with a dictionary site that serves up softballs the size of watermelons? Don’t I have better things to do with my life? No, probably not.
So, sometimes, I check out a word I’m convinced I already know. Like, say, onerous. And sometimes, it stops me dead in my tracks, the way onerous did. Sure, I’d been right about the definition (always a relief), but evidently, I’d been mispronouncing it for eons. Great, just great. I’d pronounced it (loudly and confidently) with a long o; the dictionary pronunciation guide said it was a short o. Damn (short a)! God knows how many people I’ve humiliated myself in front of for years by consistently mispronouncing onerous. It makes me think of my senior year in college, when I took to using the phrase “as it were,” even though I had no earthly idea what it meant. I just liked the sound of it, the same way I liked the sound of onerous with a short o.
Just like the snobbish woman I used to work with who got a bit confused and brandished a paper saying, Viola!, instead of Voila! How many times did I make cracks about that behind her back? I spent the rest of the year handing things over and announcing Viola! at the top of my lungs, like I was a conductor of an orchestra or something.
Now, because of the dictionary updates, I’d gotten my comeuppance. I cannot tell you how onerous it’s been.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)