The Pulchritude Award: Insouciant

I just can’t get into this word. ‘Insouciant.’ Who do you think you are? Skipping around, not a care in the world, flipping your hair and acting generally unconcerned.

Straighten up, ‘insouciant!’ You have a serious problem, in my book. Meaning, literally, if I use you in my book, people are not going to know what you mean. They’re going to assume you mean ’insolent’ or ‘unsociable.’ Maybe they’ll think you have something to do with Dr. Seuss or John Philip Sousa. To me, you sound like truculent, or insolvent.

You have too many syllables, you start with a negative prefix. You use expend far too much effort to convey your meaning of ‘blasé’ or ‘carefree.’

Ah, you see? Blasé. Carefree. Airy. Blithe. So many better words to get the point across.

Wait. Where are you going? ‘Insouciant!’ No don’t leave sad. Maybe I was a little rough on you. OK, maybe I’ll try to use you again. Fit you into a sentence here or there. Yeah… there you go. Perk up, ‘insouciant!’

Let’s all be insouciant, if just for a little while. Insouciant.

The pulchritude award goes to vocabulary words that don’t sound at all like what they mean. Click below to learn more about previous winners: Phlegmatic, Inflammable, and Alacrity.



The Pulchritude Award: Inflammable

Nick_RivieraHi, everybody! The Pulchritude Award goes to words that don’t sound like what they actually mean. Today’s winner…

In the immortal words of the all-too-mortal Dr. Nick: “Inflammable means flammable? What a country!”
‘What a country,’ indeed, Dr. Nick. And what a word!
Or should I say ‘What a prefix?’
Or should I say ‘What a series of prefixes?’
Or should I just shut up?

You see, there are a couple of ‘in-’ prefixes, that come from a variety of Latin roots. Most obviously, ‘in-’ can mean ‘un-’ or ‘not,’ as in invisible, incredible, or inadequate.

But there’s also an ‘in-’ prefix that means ‘in,’ ‘into,’ or ’toward,’ as in income or inundate. This is also the prefix for inhibit, which comes from Latin roots that roughly mean ‘hold in.’ Therefore, uninhibited is not a double-negative. That’s also where inflammable comes from—an adjective that means something is liable to burst ‘INTO’ flame.

Now if someone could just explain why invaluable is better than valuable!

Past winners of the Pulchritude Award are:
Alacrity and Phlegmatic

Once-a-Book Word: Sanguine

Like Mr. Miyagi teaching ‘the crane’ to Daniel-san, I will now teach you your own ‘special move’—a once-a-book word that will awe and befuddle your readers. I beg of you: Use it sparingly!

Sanguine: You have to love this adjective. Depending on your context, it can mean either cheerful or murderous. Who among us hasn’t been to a family reunion that starts off sanguine and ends up sanguine?

The Pulchritude Award: Phlegmatic

The Pulchritude Award goes to words that don’t sound anything like what they actually mean. Today’s winner is ‘phlegmatic,’ which is a word that’s 66% ‘Phlegm.’ Like anything that’s 66% phlegm, it sounds hella disgusting. But it turns out in ancient times, phlegm was one of the four bodily humors, and was believed to be associated with a calm temperament. So ‘phlegmatic’ actually means ‘stoic,’ ‘unemotional,’ ‘serene.’

FYI, those other three humors of ancient medicine were black bile (melancholic), yellow bile (choleric), and blood (sanguine). Collect them all! And the next time someone calls you phlegmatic, try to remain calm and don’t get offended!

I’m averse to my adverse reaction

fearful_109227560Grr! Sometimes I want to punch the English language right in its stupid face! Why does it create so much confusion by giving us words with similar definitions, separated by just one or two letters?

Only this week did I realize that there are two words for adverse. One for ‘I’m having an adverse reaction,’ and another for ‘I’m not averse to a little hard work.’ Hard work! It’s hard work keep up with all these doofy definitions.

How about these old chestnuts?
complimentary / complementary
stationary / stationery
principal / principle

Luckily, the differences between these definitions were drilled into my head in junior high.

Here are a few others that annoy me:

alternate / alternative (I wrote a post about these two)
turgid / turbid (and a post about these)
immoral / amoral

And don’t even get me started on words that can mean the opposite of themselves! Dubious, fearful, etc.

Once-a-Book word: Desultory

Like Mr. Miyagi teaching ‘the crane’ to Daniel-san, I will now teach you your own ‘special move’—a once-a-book word that will awe and befuddle your readers. I beg of you: Use it sparingly!


Hmm. What to say about desultory?

Something about this word sounds pretty to me. Is that weird?

I certainly doesn’t look pretty. On paper, it looks like a word-monster, with ‘desolation’ for a head, ‘insult’ for a body, and ‘purgatory’ for a tail.

Des-sult-tory. Hmm. What was I talking about?

Oh yeah. Desultory. When I hear the word spoken, I first think of an illusion, something fleeting and beautiful and slightly dangerous.



Anyway, the true definition of ‘desultory’ skims across of those concepts, to some degree. Kind of?

It means aimless, halfhearted, unfocused. It can also mean random, or sporadic—but always in a lukewarm, lazy sort of a way.

Y’know what I mean? Does that make sense? Kind of?

Oh never mind.

If you care, here are some other once-a-book words I wrote about. Click ‘em. Or whatever.
Peripatetic. Sanguine. Sartorial.

Once-a-book word: Turgid/Turbid

Some words are like a 360 tomahawk dunk. It’s fine to occasionally whip one out (boo-yah!). But if you use them too often, your fans will start to think you’re showboating.

This week, I’m running a twofer on once-a-book words. Yes, I know that I risk having this post burst under the weight of its own sesquipedality. And yet these two words are so confusingly similar, I thought it was best to tackle them together. Turgid and turbid. What a difference a consonant makes!

Turgid is an adjective that means ‘swollen’ or ‘distended.’ Turgid makes me think of a rush hour in Houston: thick, muggy air—and the streets overfilled with sluggish cars.

Also, turgid is one of those words that is congenitally genitally-linked. Perhaps turgid is not as bad off as other perfectly good words (like erect, penetrate, moist, ballcock) which automatically cause people to snicker or roll their eyes—no matter what the context. But if you u, se the word ‘turgid,’ know that some readers are definitely going to think of a dude’s wiener. Just deal with it. In fact, it’s kind of fun to play with that sort of implication.

So what does turbid mean? As a physical adjective, turbid is typically used to describe water that is cloudy or opaque. (To help you remember that, think of ‘turb’ in turbid as similar to water that is turbulent, or that has been disturbed.)

To make things really confusing, both ‘turgid’ and ‘turgid’ can be used as a diss on writing style. Turgid can mean pompous or pretentious (as in someone who’s puffed-up on their own self-importance). Turbid can mean confused or muddled (as in murky water).

By the way, ‘sesquipedality’ refers to the practice of using long words. Consider that one a none-a-book word!

Other once-a-book words: Sanguine, Sartorial, and Peripatetic