Monday, 3 September 2012

Websites: Wonderful words

Words enrich our appreciation of the world, though most of us use only a fraction of the words that are available to us, whatever language we speak. Over time some words die out (alas, obsequious fart catchers are no more), others remain but have changed their meanings, while new ones are always appearing. We are endlessly imaginative animals when it comes to words.

The website Save the Words is a project of the Oxford dictionaries and encourages you to use words that are falling into disuse. When was the last time you hid something in a latibule (hiding place) or had a spell of scaevity (bad luck)? I guess it’s comforting to know that there is a word for the study of jaw bones (siagonology) and a word to describe something relating to puppet shows (drollic). However, as I’ve typed these words I notice my spell checker is not coping well at all. Endangered species indeed.

The site opens with a collage of words and as you scroll over them they call out to you: Hey! Me, me! No, save me! I have to say I found this a bit too spooky. After an all-night philosophy seminar with Professor Jack Daniels my kitchen appliances yell at me in exactly the same voices. Uncanny. How did they do that?

Using the scrolling frame you can click on a word to see its meaning, along with an example of its use. You can register and adopt a word, and there are hints on different situations in which you can use them. You can even buy a t-shirt with your favourite word on it or subscribe to get a word delivered direct to you each day by e-mail. I’ve never bothered to register, but I suspect there might be a bit of Oxford marketing involved – everyone needs a dictionary, don’t they?

Still, it’s a fun site and a great way to discover some unusual words. There is a link to the inevitable Facebook group, but being Faceless I can tell you nothing about that.

If you are interested in new words, or in finding out about unusual words and expressions, then the more substantial World WideWords is the site for you. This is run by Michael Quinion, a science graduate who worked in radio for many years and who has also been the curator of the Cider Museum in Hereford. His biography is on the site.

World Wide Words has archives of words and expressions, and an almost annual list of ‘words of the year’ since 1997. There are some in-depth articles on the history of different words and expressions and a good number of reviews of books that focus on words and language use. I’ve allowed many slices of toast go up in flames while absorbed in these.

The lists of words and expressions are arranged alphabetically, so they are easy to search. You can also ask about words or reply to other readers’ questions, and there are links to a range of useful websites. I subscribe to this site’s weekly e-magazine (it’s free) and I find it a fascinating read. There are usually some amusing examples of bad usage, many of which seem to be perpetrated by sports commentators. Who’d have thought?

So if you need some ideas on how to better express yourself, or want to get to the bottom of some maddeningly obtuse expression, or simply want to annoy the hell out of your friends, then I would encourage you to spend some time looking at these sites. If you’re an avid reader I think you will like them.

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