A primer of impressive-sounding words and their curious origins (Book Review)

Title: How to Sound Really Clever; Author: Hubert Van Den Bergh; Publisher: Bloomsbury Information; Pages: 224; Price: Rs 250

Do you wonder if there is a word for the feeling of hopeless sadness you might get during your boss’s motivational speech, or to describe the limited view (for us) of the characters in a film, how words they can reflect gender stereotypes or even what dogs have to do with bad poetry or hot days?

There are such words and such links, though we might not know them. For there is one human innovation that, despite its abundant resources augmented over the ages, is seeing lesser and lesser utilisation today, even though we’re seeing an unprecedented communication revolution, it is vocabulary. And etymology, or the studys of word origins, is a related casualty.

But what relevance has vocabulary when grammar and orthography are being given the go-by? The need emerges on realisation that what works in social media or chats – won’t take us far in the real world, and in our work. And then one appropriate word can convey much more and more unforgettably than a full sentence, and that is the essence of human communication, not crunching words for speedier messaging.

But building up an adequate vocabulary is a long-term process, requiring extensive reading, if not regular dipping into some voluminous dictionary, but there are ways to shorten this route.

Reading this book for example.

In a follow-up to his popular “How to Sound Clever” (2010), Van Den Bergh presents another 600 or so words we must know, ranging from acedia to Zelig, from mainlining to screed, and from Pooh-Bah to valence. He however stresses that despite the unfamiliarity of some of them, they are not curiosities of the English language, but “still managing to be common currency, and definitely not ‘dead’ or obsolete”.

But these are not words one can just memorise and seek to use for effect without understanding their full connotation, not just the meaning or what we think is the meaning, for this could be professionally hazardous – as happened to the author himself.

Van Der Bergh, who has a keen interest in language but has worked as a businessman in London for over a decade, mentioned in his first book, that he was once making a presentation for a deal and thought it went off well with the opposite side apparently satisfied. But when he ended, one of them noted he had been using one word a lot and asked him if he knew the meaning. It turned out that Van Der Bergh had been using it all wrong. The deal never happened.

“Now, that particular gentleman may have been a stickler but his point stands: if you can’t be trusted with your use of those most elementary forms of communication, words, then what can you be trusted with exactly?” he asks.

Like the previous volume, he says this one too came from the “most wonderful words” he had come across in conversation and newspaper articles, and he not only enlists them with their meanings, but also provides examples of usage and in some cases, a small history of their chequered origins.

And Van Der Bergh ensures the meaning is well brought out through the mostly witty examples of usage he comes up with. For acedia, which we learn comes from the Greek and means unaccountable melancholy, he provides the gem “Halfway through my boss’s motivational speech, my mind began to wander, and soon acedia took a grip of me”. Familiar to wage-slaves?

While any reasonably-literate person would know quite a bit of the words presented, there are many more, drawn from many fields and languages, not only showcasing the richness of language, but also give a vivid view of how words evolve and change their meanings – mainly from positive to negative but also vice versa, and what dark histories may lie behind some innocuous sounding ones.

As entertaining as it is educational, this also shows how languages like English retain primacy by freely appropriating more expressive words from others even they have a existing word – avatar is a recent example.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in <mailto:vikas.d@ians.in> )



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