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Alaskan Range: Express An Emotion

Columnist and librarian Greg Hill considers words beautiful and words ugly.

Interjections like “uh-oh,” “hardy-har-har,” and “neener-neener” can be handy communication facilitators. When I recently read that Brad Shorr’s “World’s Hardest Vocabulary Test” includes words like “fugacious,” “defalcate”(evanescent) and “pismire” (an ant), I uttered “whoa,” my amazement interjection of choice. I might well have employed “yowza,” “zoinks,” or another favorite, “hamana-hamana.”

Grammarian Maeve Maddox blogs that “interjections come from a Latin word, ‘interiectionem,’ that means ‘throw between.’ It’s a word or phrase that is thrown into a sentence to express an emotion.” “Yay,” for example, “is a congratulatory exclamation,” while “yeah” is a variant of “yes,” and therefore no interjection. Ranging from the sedate “goodness gracious” and “mercy me” to the more sinister “hubba-hubba” and “bwah-hah-hah,” interjections help convey our feelings accurately.

Other words warrant admiration merely for the way they trip across the tongue, but that’s subjective. When asked to list the most beautiful English words, Wilfred Funk, originator of Reader’s Digest’s “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,” chose “Asphodel” (a type of Mediterranean plant), “fawn,” “dawn,” “chalice,” “anemone,” and “tranquil.”

However, when 40,000 non-native English speakers were asked the same question by the British Council in 2004, they began with “mother, “passion,” “smile,” “love,” and “eternity.” The beautiful word list polled from the staff of ALTAlang.com, a translating and language instruction site, includes “bubble,” “susurrus” (soft murmuring or rustling sound), “epythymy” (lustful desire), and “poshlust” (something in bad taste).

What about the other end of the scale? Mississippi State classics professor Robert Wolverton asked his students for years to name the ugliest and most beautiful words. “Moist,” phlegm,” “hate,” “ooze,” “vomit,” and “putrid” garnered the “ugliest” votes, while “love,” “eloquent,” “faith,” “plethora,” and “serendipity” were considered most beautiful. Wolverton came away with two observations: multiple-syllabic words with Latin roots are more likely to be thought beautiful, while ugly words had Germanic roots and often contained only one or two syllables.

Our library’s Antiquarian Book Collection is kept under lock and key since it includes some rare items. Among them is a second edition copy of the celebrated “Dictionary of the English Language,” compiled by Samuel Johnson in 1755. His dictionary was such a monumental achievement, he became popularly known as “Dictionary” Johnson. Although our copy was published a decade later, it’s still an impressive, oversized two-volume tome whose pages remain supple. Johnson’s American equivalent was Noah Webster, “the father of the American dictionary,” but the first American author of a dictionary wasn’t Webster, but Samuel Johnson, Jr.

Johnson Jr. was a Connecticut school master, and no relation to “Dictionary” Johnson. His “School Dictionary” was published in 1798, thirty years before Webster’s “American Dictionary of the English Language.” Both Webster and Johnson Jr. received the same widespread condemnation from lingual conservatives for including new-fangled Americanisms and not sticking to the King’s English. “Tomahawk” was scorned for having Native American roots, French words were too European, and innovations like “lengthy” might lead to “strengthy” and other abominations.

“Innovation” was itself one of the uglier words of that era. Joseph Dennie, a Federalist editor who signed himself “an Enemy to Innovation,” wrote against Jr.’s dictionary, saying it was a product of “the stupid vanity of the present day, which induces mankind to despise the well-tried principles of their Ancestors.” That makes me want to use my profession’s legendary interjection, “Shhhhh!” That’s from bygone times, when smartphones and netbooks didn’t exist, and prim librarians with grey buns and pointy glasses and highly-developed senses of decorum prevailed.

People today still need quiet places to read and study, but they also need places to interact with other people, and the library provides for both. One side of Noel Wien Library (in Fairbanks, Alaska) is dedicated to limited conversation and conversation-free zones, and has enclosed rooms to reduce ambient sounds. The library’s other side has small meeting rooms and conference tables where reasonable levels of talking are permitted. Cell phone conversations are restricted to certain rooms and the lobby, but we have a “sound booth” to reduce noise, and texting, tweeting, and other non-verbal communications are allowed throughout the building. And you can scream all you want in the parking lot.

Uh-huh, there’s something for everyone at your public library.

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