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.