Useless Words?

Have you ever seen a word that made you ask “How and why would I ever use this?”  It happens to me all the time.  The difference between stumbling on a “useless” word in the dictionary and finding it on QQ’s homepage is that QQ requires action: no matter how you feel about the word, you must use it somehow — before midnight Eastern.

If solving QQ always means answering the how-do-I-use-this question, solving it with craft means addressing the why as well.  The best solutions go beyond employing the words, even beyond illustrating them; the best solutions situate the words, creating a context where each word seems to fit more snugly than other options, thereby making a case for the utility, even the necessity of a few syllables that we might otherwise call useless.

But let’s take a step back — what is this talk of “uselessness” on a site dedicated to the joy of uncommon words?  Do we not presuppose an interest in everything obscure, antique, and tragically obsolete?

I confess to two reasons for considering words as useless to me.  The first case is when the word refers to some extremely technical or specialized concept in which I have no plan to develop an interest.   Often this case arises with medical terms describing conditions that I hope never to develop.   Rhabdomyolysis: if I’m ever diagnosed with it, I’ll look it up.  But in such a circumstance, I’d have no quibble with the word.  That’s just what it’s called — if you want to identify the condition, you need that term.

Now, to use rhabdomyolysis in QQ, you might create a character who suffers from it.  The challenge is to fit this detail into a story-sentence with the other three words and to give some hint of what your poor protagonist’s ailment involves.  That’s no easy feat, but once you’ve done it, there can be no question whether rhabdomyolysis was right word; alternatives don’t abound.

The second case for calling a word “useless” is when alternatives do abound, when the word is outshined by more popular and perfectly effective synonyms.  Rugose, for example, means wrinkled.  Why not just say wrinkled?

On days of low energy, I will sometimes think of the simpler word, like wrinkled, when constructing my sentence, and then replace it with the harder one before I finish, hoping that rugose doesn’t sound terribly misplaced, which it probably will.  This is not the approach I recommend, as it can lead to sentences that only reinforce the question: Why does this word exist?

One fertile approach to championing a word (and I take this championing as an implicit, though not always reachable goal of each QQ resolution), is to concentrate on its particular sound.  Can you create a context where that sound — more so than any synonym’s — is just what a reader would want to hear?

A poet might choose an uncommon word if it fits into a scheme that a common one does not: the rhyme creates the need.  And we do have poetry on QQ, including some clever limericks.  The bulk of QQ solutions don’t involve rhyme or strict meter, but many solutions still make use of roughly “poetic” techniques.  For example, on 10/22/2009 luigi’s character remembered his grandmother’s “rugose, ringed, rugelach-kneading hands.”   In this case, alliteration binds the obscure word into a phrase with more familiar words, making rugose seem like “one of the gang.”  Arguably, wrinkled could have worked here too, but one feels that losing rugose would be very sad for rugelach, its companion in the dictionary under rug… as well as in this phrase.

Along with the poetic approach, focused on sound and feel, one can take a narrative approach to championing the word, looking for a character who might gainfully employ it.  A natural character type for QQ solutions is a crazed logophile who uses obscure words simply because he or she is obsessed with them.  Since many QQ contributors have something of that character inside them, this is a tempting voice to assume — do have fun with this approach, but remember there’s more to try!  You might create a character who is not necessarily a word lover but who must use jargon in a specific social or professional context.  American Heritage Dictionary gives one definition of rugose as a term from botany: “Having a rough, wrinkled surface, as in certain prominently veined leaves.”  Your character might be a botanist who speaks much of plants, or who speaks of everything in the world as if it were a plant.

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