According to Regina Brett of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, there are 1,010,649 words in the English language. Why is it then, when just one word, or perhaps a few well-chosen words, will do, the language is a desert, a barren plain? The apt phrase proves to be a mirage. The hoped for witticism is drab, withered, colorless. The desired sparkling comment – desiccated, lifeless, dull. Finding a word is easy; finding the right word isn’t.
And when I do find that perfect word, all too often it’s too late. A few years ago when I was out and about on weekend mornings covering 5Ks for the local paper, fartlek would have been a welcome addition to my vocabulary. Unfortunately, the word escaped my attention until last night when I was making my way through Peter Bowler’s The Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird and Wondrous Words. Fartlek, according to Bowler, “is a method of training long distance runners, whereby the trainee runs across country, alternating speed work with slow jogging.” Lest you think Bowler made this up, and I suspected he had, dictionary.com, citing The Random House Dictionary, gives the definition as, “a training technique, used especially among runners, consisting of bursts of intense effort loosely alternating with less strenuous activity.” It is from the Swedish, meaning “speed play.” While the sources don’t say, perhaps the bursts of speed are due to bursts of gas.
Because I didn’t know the word, I never wrote, “Schmedley made no beans about it, his time was better because he’s been spending more time doing fartlek.” Of course, if I had written that, the sports editor might have raised a stink.
One of the more onerous tasks faced by a married man is assessing his wife’s appearance. And he must make regular assessments because she asks him to. “How do I look?” she asks every time they are about to go out the door and every time she dons a new outfit. “Boy, you look great,” is never a satisfactory answer, even when it’s the truth. “Are you sure?” she’ll ask; or she’ll say something like “You really don’t mean that,” or “You’re just saying that,” or “I think it makes me look fat.”
Which is why embonpoint would have been such a handy word. Too bad I didn’t stumble over it while I was married. When she asked how she looked, I could have said, “What a pretty dress. I love the color, and it brings out your natural embonpoint.” The Frenchiness would have overwhelmed her, and she would have been happy for days. Eventually, of course, she would have looked up embonpoint and discovered it means “plumpness.” That would have made for a rough week or two, but she would have never again asked me how she looked.
And while on the subject of things nuptial, there is the word uxorious. When I first came upon it a few years ago and looked it up in my copy of The American Heritage Dictionary: Second College Edition, copyright 1985, the word was defined as “Excessively or irrationally devoted to one’s wife.” More recently, when I looked it up online, the definition, citing The American Heritage Dictionary, copyright 2000, was “Excessively submissive or devoted to one’s wife.” What happened to “irrational?” How is it in fifteen years the uxorious fellow went from being nuts to being just really, really sensitive? I bet the chairperson of the usage panel is a domineering full-figured woman embarrassed by her embonpoint.