Suppose that you’re telling a story. It is a grand story, too. Full of lust and adventure, with ominous threats and feats of astounding courage and cunning, this is an episode none should miss, which you’ll be happy to share anew with many different groups and passersby.
And then suppose that, right as you approach the climactic moment of your story—when you should happen to say, “we couldn’t believe how much data we got”—a member of your audience interrupts by pointing out, “data is quantifiable, actually, so you would say ‘how many data’, not ‘how much data’.”
That, of course, quite thoroughly takes the wind of your story’s sails. And you might wonder what sort of accusatory word you could apply to this person to indicate that—while they might be right about the point of fact—their decision to interject it in the middle of your story was decidedly inappropriate.
If you won the lottery, you’d more than likely be ecstatic. “Ecstatic”, however, is a fairly bland word—it doesn’t really describe the way you’d behave, how you’d act if you were suddenly ridiculously, absurdly rich. You’d probably tell people about it. Certainly, you’d do something active with the money—that is, you wouldn’t just shrug and go home and put it aside. You’d probably splurge a bit, or invest, or do both. Whatever the case, between running around celebrating your newfound wealth and obliging your consumerist upbringing by spending it as fast as you could, it would be safe to say that you would be ebullient (ih’bool’yunt).
Ebullience (being ebullient) is a sort of excessive excitement and activity. It’s not just activity, nor is it just being happy about something. An airport is a very busy place, but the activity there is coordinated and planned out. Two people who fall madly in love are likely happy when they see one another, but not in an overflowing or dramatic manner. Ebullience is an amalgam of emotional hyperactivity and great activity. The word’s Latin origins actually refer to something bubbling up or boiling over. Thus, you could say that a pan left unattended on the stove, if it boils over, is being ebullient.
Another feature of many awesome words (as opposed to many an un-awesome word) is the simplicity of their concepts. Not only do some words have a concept that’s really easy to wrap one’s mind around, but it’s a concept you already know. Much like last week’s word, we’ll look, now, at a word for something you undoubtedly experience all the time.
You have, in all likelihood, met folks who are just determined to get into a quarrel about everything and anything. While there are surely instances where the odd bit of sparring is warranted, that’s not what motivates these bellicose (BELL’ih’kohs) individuals. It would be hard to find fault with someone who felt like fighting if suddenly set upon by some uncouth street mugger, but self-defensiveness does not make one bellicose. Rather, the desire to turn any disagreement into a fight—or to turn ordinary conversation into disagreement—indicates that a person is bellicose.
To be bellicose is to be combative, inclined to fight. Some definitions go so far as to use the word “eager”.
Should you be confronted with someone who seems to find a way to turn anything into a battle, feel free to tell them to quit being so bellicose. It’s likely that they won’t know what you mean, but that’s alright; they probably wouldn’t change their ways even if they did.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs. Mark is 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.
Without a doubt, one of the things that makes an awesome word awesome is that it applies to something people do all the time. For example, we all know what it’s like to forget something—or, more accurately, to go through the process of forgetting. Knowledge which you gained that you’ll need on a forthcoming exam tends to start slipping away as soon as you cram it in there. This process is one we can all relate to, but how many know that it’s called “oblivescence”? It happens to every single one of us, but so few of us know that there’s a word for it!
Similarly, we all know what it means to be purposefully misleading, bordering on lying. Just about everyone has had the argument in which they’re accused of lying and—because they told the truth but in a misleading way, not actually lying qua lying—they insist that they have not lied. Well, the word for what you did that wasn’t exactly lying but still fudged the truth in your favor is prevaricate (pre’VAR’ick’ate).
To prevaricate is to be misleading, to sort of, kinda, not really entirely tell the whole truth… In other words, to lie. Unlike outright lying, prevaricating is a bit more manipulative, and may involve answering a question that wasn’t asked or providing an answer that you know isn’t really what the asker was looking for.
You have to wonder what’s going on in their heads, or what’s wrong with them. They are quite suspicious!
“They” are those who, though present in a group or conversation, don’t say much and have to be prodded to deliver a contribution of any sort. Notwithstanding context, one may not have reason to expect any given person to participate in any given gathering (for example, in any given class, there will be plenty of students who sit through the whole thing without saying anything, and this is normal). In any social situation, however, where it might be normal for everyone to say something, it is then that we become curious about or leery of those who are taciturn (TASS’it’urn).
Being taciturn can be the result of a couple of different things. Discomfort, disgruntlement, stupidity, fatigue, and good, old-fashioned introversion are all contributors. Being a mute, however, is not. This is because to be taciturn is to be disinclined to speak (that is, to have no desire to speak up or out). It is not to be confused with being unable to speak. You would be wrong to put duct tape over someone’s mouth and then accuse them of being taciturn.
When you receive a “job offer” to go to work for a place which promises great fortunes and opportunities, wonderful benefits, and other attractive drivel, and it then turns out that you have to pay to participate in this “job”, something suspicious is afoot (usually a pyramid scheme, or some other sort of uncouthness). It is in instances such as this that one might display sagacity (suh’GAS’it’ee) in quickly deciding that despite the opportunity to make a lot of money, it’s never wise to have to pay an employer for a job.
Or, perhaps your car is not running well. You take it to the auto shop and are quickly told that the problem can be fixed for something like $1200. If you’re well enough to-do that this is pocket change, you go ahead and pay the man. Alternately, you might display some sagacity by saying, “All that for two brake pads and rotors?! What are they; made of platinum?!” and march out the door.
If you are a gentleman who has been randomly approached be a woman offering you “a good time”, it takes very little sagacity to determine that you are in the presence of someone of questionable ethics and certain ulterior motives which may leave your pocketbook penniless.
And so on.
Of course, some things are worth carrying on about. If you see a violent wreck on the freeway, it’s natural to react with great concern and distress. If, on the other hand, you break a nail, there’s likely no excuse whatsoever for getting terribly upset. The death of a pet hamster is likely disturbing, but you’d have a hard time convincing someone that it’s just as dolorous an event as the loss of a family member.
Nevertheless, we all know individuals who seem to go out of their way to make quite a presentation of the excitement and drama behind things that, frankly, aren’t that exciting or dramatic. You might call these people “drama queens”, or simply “melodramatic”. You also might tell them to quit with the histrionics (HISS’tree’on’icks) already.
Although histrionics technically refers to any dramatic representation—such as acting—the word in common usage refers to the unnecessarily melodramatic affectations of those who want to be noticed or given more sympathy or attention than they or their particular difficulty warrants. Everyone understands, for example, that it’s an inconvenience to get a flat tire, but if you start regaling others with stories of how your flat tire made you miss your plane which made you miss your marriage which made your fiancé leap from a cliff which made your life wretched, folks are going to be incredulous—and rightly so.
Physical scientists have, for generations, pondered whether it is possible to create a perpetual motion machine—something which keeps moving without any net input of energy. The generally accepted consensus is that it is not (unless you consider the universe, to which that description applies fairly aptly). Nevertheless, a strong pursuit of engineers and thinkers alike has been to produce gizmos which keep going under their own power, which feed off of their own energy to keep doing whatever it is that they do.
If this sounds a bit abstract, consider a jet engine. The concept is surprisingly simple—exploding gas and air shoots out the back of the thing, pushing it forward. As it does so, it turns a fan at the back of the engine which is attached to a similar—but larger—fan at the front of the engine. This larger fan sucks air in, and the process repeats. As long as the engine is turning, the engine will keep turning. The egress of gasses out the back can only take place in such a way that more air is pulled in the front, and the pulling-in of more air results in the explosive expelling out the back which causes the process to work in the first place. It’s not a perpetual-motion machine, of course—without fuel, it would stop. But it is about as close as we’ve gotten. That is to say, it is autocatalytic (AW’toe’cat’uh’lit’ik).
This week’s word is a fun one. Although the word itself is not one you’re likely to use often, it refers to something you’ve met quite a bit and will hopefully go onto meet some more—that is, the aphorism (AFF’or’iz’m).
And what, exactly, is an aphorism? It’s anything short and sweet that says a lot! It’s a terse expression of truth or strong opinion that is often witty and so logically concrete (or potently expressive of one’s view) that refutation is difficult.
Example is certainly the best way to understand what an aphorism is. You’ve doubtless heard, for example, that a mind is like a parachute and works best only when open. Or perhaps someone’s told you that the heaviest thing you can carry is a grudge.
Aphorisms cover an enormous range of subjects—in fact, they can be derived from anything at all. Winston Churchill is famous for his piggy aphorism: “I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” Note that he’s not just talking about animals; he’s subtly (or not so subtly) making a comment on the elevation of humans’ ranking in the greater hierarchy of animals.
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.