David Foster Wallace, What Words Really Mean (2004)

When the American writer David Foster Wallace died four years ago, he left behind the following fragments: notes towards a dictionary all of his own


A noxious puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter; rather, using utilize makes you seem either like a pompous twit or like someone so insecure that she’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look sophisticated. The same is true for the noun utilization, for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for house, for presentlyat present,at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: “formal writing” does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.


A paradoxical noun because it refers to a kind of beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adj. formpulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutivebig, foreign, fancy(adj.), classycolloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others; there are at least a dozen more. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for real things and real things themselves.


An adjective, not synonymous with the noun mucus. It’s worth noting this not only because the two words are fun but because so many people don’t know the difference. Mucus means the unmentionable stuff itself.Mucous refers to (1) something that makes or secretes mucus, as in “The next morning, his mucous membranes were in rocky shape indeed,” or (2) something that consists of or resembles mucus, as in “The mucous consistency of its eggs kept the diner’s breakfast trade minimal.”


As an adj., myriad means (1) an indefinitely large number of something (“The Local Group comprises myriad galaxies”) or (2) made up of a great many diverse elements (“the myriad plant life of Amazonia”). As a noun, it’s used with an article and of to mean a large number (“The new CFO faced a myriad of cash-flow problems”). What’s odd is that some authorities consider only the adjective usage correct — there’s about a 50-50 chance that a given copy editor will query a myriad of — even though the noun usage has a much longer history. It was only in 19th-century poetry that myriad started being used as an adj. So it’s a bit of a stumper. It’s tempting to recommend avoiding the noun usage so that no readers will be bugged, but at the same time it’s true that any reader who’s bugged by a myriad of is both persnickety and wrong — and you can usually rebut snooty teachers, copy editors, et al. by directing them to Coleridge’s “Myriad myriads of lives teemed forth.”


This is one of a class of adjectives, sometimes called “uncomparables”, that can be a little tricky. Among other uncomparables are precise,exactcorrectentireaccuratepreferableinevitablepossiblefalse; there are probably two dozen in all. These adjectives all describe absolute, non-negotiable states: something is either false or it’s not; something is either inevitable or it’s not. Many writers get careless and try to modify uncomparables with comparatives like more and less or intensives like very. But if you really think about them, the core assertions in sentences like “War is becoming increasingly inevitable as Middle East tensions rise”; “Their cost estimate was more accurate than the other firms’”; and “As a mortician, he has a very unique attitude” are nonsense. If something is inevitable, it is bound to happen; it cannot be bound to happen and then somehow even more bound to happen.Unique already means one-of-a-kind, so the adj. phrase very unique is at best redundant and at worst stupid, like “audible to the ear” or “rectangular in shape”. You can blame the culture of marketing for some of this difficulty. As the number and rhetorical volume of US ads increase, we become inured to hyperbolic language, which then forces marketers to load superlatives and uncomparables with high-octane modifiers (special – very special – Super-special! – Mega-Special!!), and so on. A deeper issue implicit in the problem of uncomparables is the dissimilarities between Standard Written English and the language of advertising. Advertising English, which probably deserves to be studied as its own dialect, operates under different syntactic rules than SWE, mainly because AE’s goals and assumptions are different. Sentences like “We offer a totally unique dining experience”; “Come on down and receive your free gift”; and “Save up to 50 per cent… and more!” are perfectly OK in Advertising English — but this is because Advertising English is aimed at people who are not paying close attention. If your audience is by definition involuntary, distracted and numbed, then free gift and totally unique stand a better chance of penetrating — and simple penetration is what AE is all about. One axiom of Standard Written English is that your reader is paying close attention and expects you to have done the same.


Focus is now the noun of choice for expressing what people used to mean by concentration (“Sampras’s on-court focus was phenomenal”) and priority (“Our focus is on serving the needs of our customers”). As an adj., it seems often to serve as an approving synonym for driven ormonomaniacal: “He’s the most focused warehouse manager we’ve ever had.” As a verb, it seems isomorphic with the older to concentrate: “Focus, people!”; “The Democrats hope that the campaign will focus on the economy”; “We need to focus on finding solutions instead of blaming each other”. Given the speed with which to focus has supplanted to concentrate, it’s a little surprising that nobody objects to its somewhat jargony New Age feel — but nobody seems to. Maybe it’s because the word is only one of many film and drama terms that have entered mainstream usage in the last decade, e.g., to foreground (= to feature, to give top priority to); to background (= to downplay, to relegate to the back burner); scenario (= an outline of some hypothetical sequence of events), and so on.


A beautiful and expressive word that combines the phonological charms of verve and fever. Lots of writers, though, think fervent is synonymous with fervid, and most dictionary defs. don’t do much to disabuse them. The truth is that there’s a hierarchical trio of zeal-type adjectives, all with roots in the Latin verb fervere (= to boil). Even though fervent can also mean extremely hot, glowing (as in “Fingering his ascot, Aubrey gazed abstractedly at the brazier’s fervent coals”), it’s actually just the baseline term; fervent is basically synonymous with ardent. Fervid is the next level up; it connotes even more passion/devotion/eagerness than fervent. At the top is perfervid, which means extravagantly, rabidly, uncontrollably zealous or impassioned. Perfervid deserves to be used more, not only for its internal alliteration and metrical pizzazz but because its deployment usually shows that the writer knows the differences between the three fervere words.


A totally great adjective. Feckless primarily means deficient in efficacy, i.e., lacking vigor or determination, feeble; but it can also mean careless, profligate, irresponsible. It appears most often now in connection with wastoid youths, bloated bureaucracies — anyone who’s culpable for his own haplessness. The great thing about using feckless is that it lets you be extremely dismissive and mean without sounding mean; you just sound witty and classy. The word’s also fun to read because of the soft eassonance and the sound — the triply assonant noun form is even more fun.


This medical noun signifies an especially icky ulcerous infection of the mouth or genitals. Because the condition most commonly strikes children living in abject poverty/squalor, it’s a bit like scrofula. And just as the adj. scrofulous has gradually extended its sense to mean “corrupt, degenerate, gnarly”, so nomal seems ripe for similar extension; it could serve as a slightly obscure or erudite synonym for “scrofulous, repulsive, pathetically gross, grossly pathetic”… you get the idea.


There are maybe more descriptors for various kinds of hair and hairiness than any other word-set in English, and some of them are extremely strange and fun. The more pedestrian terms like shaggy,unshornbushycoiffed, and so on we’ll figure you already know. The adj. barbigerous is an extremely uptown synonym for beardedCirroseand cirrous, from the Latin cirrus meaning “curl” or “fringe” (as in cirrus clouds), can both be used to refer to somebody’s curly or tufty or wispy/feathery hair — Nicolas Cage’s hair in Adaptation is cirrose. Crinitemeans “hairy or possessed of a hair-like appendage”, though it’s mainly a botanical term and would be a bit eccentric applied to a person.Crinose, though, is a people-adj. that means “having a lot of hair”, especially in the sense of one’s hair being really long. The related nouncrinosity is antiquated but not obsolete and can be used to refer to somebody’s hair in an amusingly donnish way, as in Madonna’s normally platinum crinosity is now a maternal brownGlabrous, which is the loveliest of all hair-related adjectives, means having no hair (on a given part) at all. Please note that glabrous means more baby’s-bottom-hairless than bald or shaved, though if you wanted to describe a bald person in an ironically fancy way you could talk about his glabrous domeor something. Hirsute is probably the most familiar upmarket synonym for hairy, totally at home in any kind of formal writing. Like that of many hair-related adjectives, hirsute’s original use was in botany (where it means “covered with coarse or bristly hairs”), but in regular usage its definition is much more general. Hispid means “covered with stiff or rough little hairs” and could apply to a military pate or unshaved jaw.Hispidulous is mainly just a puffed-up form of hispid and should be avoided. Lanate and lanated mean “having or being composed of woolly hairs”. A prettier and slightly more familiar way to describe woolly hair is with the adjective flocculent. (There’s also floccose, but this is used mainly of odd little hairy fruits like kiwi and quince.) Then there are thepil-based words, all derived from the Latin pilus (= hair). Pilose, another fairly common adj., means “covered with fine soft hair”. Last but not least is the noun pilimiction, which names a hopefully very rare medical disorder “in which piliform or hair-like bodies are passed in the urine”. Outside of maybe describing some kind of terribly excruciated facial expression as pilimictive, however, it’s hard to imagine a mainstream use for pilimictionTomentose means “covered with dense little matted hairs” — baby chimps, hobbits’ feet and Robin Williams are alltomentoseUlotrichous, which is properly classed with lannate andflocculent, is an old term for “crisply woolly hair”. Be advised that it is also, if not exactly a racist adj., certainly a racial one — AC Haddon’sRaces of Man, from the early 1900s, classified races according to three basic hair types: leiotrichous (straight), cymotrichous (wavy) andulotrichous.

Now go do the right thing.

This is an edited extract from “Both Flesh and Not”, by David Foster Wallace, published by Hamish Hamilton at £20.

“Twenty-Four Word Notes” was originally published in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus Copyright © 2004, 2008, 2012 Oxford University Press


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