Friday’s Word of the Week

One of the joys of reading is discovering that I still need the dictionary.  I seem to have a vocabulary that is large enough to handle most of the words that I encounter in my usual or typical reading material. This isn’t to say that I feel my vocabulary is exceptional; it’s not that shabby, but the truth is that I am probably not reading things that are as challenging as they should be. Either I am wimping out or the author is. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: I generally don’t need a dictionary when I’m reading.

There are, however, some authors  who use words that send me racing for my Webster’s. Sometimes it’s just the odd word or two, but there are some writers – H.L. Mencken, for one – that I will not read without easy access to a dictionary. Recently, to my delight, I’ve discovered that E.B. White is another. (Does it have something to do with the double initial, I wonder?) From his essays, I learned what a bivouac is, a word which is fun and interesting, regardless of the fact that I’ll probably never have occasion to use it. But one never knows, right? After all, I did once find myself in a conversation which presented me – organically, with no manipulation on my part at all – with the opportunity to use the Slovenian word for dwarf (pritlikavec – literal translation: “close to the floor guy”), which nearly exhausts my knowledge of Slovenian vocabulary. So there may be hope for bivouac.

And so, in an effort to consciously find more challenging authors and add to my vocabulary in a more consistent, systematic way, I launch a new Friday feature: Word of the Week. Here I will post my favorite of the words that I have learned during the week, whether it be an obscure word from days past, a new idiom or slang term in current use, or something that lives in the middle of these two extremes. I invite any and all contributions from anyone who wants to come along on the journey.


You say governor, I say gubernator…let’s call the whole thing off!

I was asked the other day if I could explain why ‘govern’ and related words were all spelled and pronounced with a /v/ but ‘gubernatorial’ had a /b/. I didn’t have a firm answer, but I mentioned the idea of loan words occasionally maintaining some of the morphology of the original language rather than being totally anglicized. It seemed reasonable but of course I wouldn’t be satisfied until I did some research.

So off I went. I broke out my OED, my Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, I googled information on consonant shifts in High German in the 9th and 10th centuries, I pulled out old textbooks on historical linguistics, and I even checked out books of the history of English from the library. I was hot on the trail and working hard on figuring out the answer. Then I found this and it more or less took the wind out of my sails. My consolation was that I had pretty much come up with the same solution, although it was shaping up to be a much wordier one. At least allow me to at least add a few additional details. Continue reading