Mark’s Awesome Word of the Week

scintilla

One of the problems with a limited vocabulary is the tendency to overuse the few words one has at one’s disposal. (Incidentally, overusing the words one knows is also a problem common to many folks, not just those who have a restricted word repertoire.)

As an example, you’ve almost certainly heard someone use the word “trace” to refer to a small quantity of something. Or, perhaps you’ve head “iota”. This is fine, but these words are easy to confuse for their more common meanings. “Trace”, of course, is to follow the outline of something, and “iota” is the Greek equivalent to our letter i—the ninth letter of the alphabet.

So! What if we wanted a word which actually means “a tiny little speck of something”…and doesn’t mean anything else while it’s at it?

I give you: scintilla! Pronounced “sin-til-uh”, scintilla refers to the smallest quantity of something—just a spark, or a particle of it. Thus, you might say that there isn’t a scintilla of customer service in the trashy hotel, or that the dilapidated ferry hadn’t a scintilla of safety about it. Politicians frequently have not got so much as a scintilla of honesty in them. A scintilla of Tabasco sauce makes almost any entrée better.

Unlike almost any other word you might have learned which can be used in these contexts (consider “hint” or “suggestion”), scintilla has no alternative meaning. It just means—well, it means a trace, hint, iota, or suggestion of something.

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs. Mark is the The Jet Fuel Review’s prose editor. He is an Aviation major, but the left side of his brain is an avid writer. Mark is a junior and works a few hours a week as a tutor in the Writing Center.

4 thoughts on “Mark’s Awesome Word of the Week

  1. Sheila Kennedy September 21, 2012 / 4:30 pm

    Another awesome word and discussion, Mark! So how do you decide which word to address? And what goes into your process of coming up with the discussion? They’re seamless and lively–as if they just appear complete–that’s good writing! And I get the sense that you really enjoy writing about these awesome words. So tell us about your approach. Thanks.

    • Mark September 26, 2012 / 2:32 pm

      The process is actually part of a much larger effort. I keep a file on my computer called “Words!.doc”. Every time a new word comes my way, I throw it in there. I actually haven’t gotten around to looking up a fair number of them – there are fifty pages of them, at this point. Since I don’t carry my computer with me, new words usually end up on the back of my hand or in my smart phone before making it into the Words! file. At the moment, for example, tartuffery, syncretism, primogeniture, untrammeled, and gallinaceous are a few of the words waiting to end up in the big list.

      So, when the time comes to write the blog entries, I open up my master list of Words! and scroll through it until I find one that seems both generally useful or good-to-know and not obnoxious. There are, of course, big, complicated words that are very, very rarely used, and while I enjoy knowing they exist, I tend to avoid them when selecting blog candidates. For example, not many folks will have a use for “amniocentesis”. On the other hand, who wouldn’t like to know the word “ursine”, meaning “of or pertaining to bears; bearlike”?!?! What a fabulous word… it could be used to say something good about someone (“…grandpa’s ursine hugs…”), bad (“…he mauled the wayward tourist with ursine strength…”), or comical (“…his ursine capacity for devouring any food he caught sight of…”).

      Once I decide a word is both awesome and something that might be useful to the average writer/speaker, it’s usually just a matter of writing out what I think makes the word awesome in the first place, and as with so many things, examples tend to be the best way to do that. So, I just try to find a good context for the word, provide a few examples, and the blog post is done!

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