The frabjous joy of words

So I’m strolling along the path beside the sea this morning, gazing at the surf and wondering if I will see dolphins, thinking I’ll pick up a lettuce on the way home, but I’m aware of something else going on in the back of my mind. It’s a word, echoing away, almost like background music. The word is ‘fecund’ but on any other day it will be something entirely different. I have spent the day with ‘fallopian’ drumming away in the background and even had a simple ‘spent’ bounce around my brain for a day.

Is it because I’m a writer that certain words catch (and hold) my attention? They tend to be a juicy blend of hard and soft sounds  – fallopian is quite luscious, fecund is quite direct – and you have to move your lips when you say them. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the meaning of the word – it’s all about the sound.

This is why I like the comedian Miranda Hart so much. Often she will dwell on a certain word – plunge, Jacinta, plinth – and enjoy saying it again and again. That’s me, I think to myself when I watch her do it. And I suspect that it might also be quite a few other people, too.

For a brief period I worked with adults who had autism. One older man liked to sit contentedly looking about him and repeat ‘micronesia’ over and over again. While others used to wonder why on earth he was saying it, I understood that it was the pure, comforting pleasure of saying the word that he was enjoying. Micronesia is such a satisfying word, after all.

As a broadcaster, it’s good to have words that have a kind of chewiness. It makes for more interesting listening, which is why I like to use ‘zingy’ or ‘zappy’ instead of plain old ‘exciting.’ Isn’t ‘plopping’ something down more satisfying  than ‘putting’ it down? A master of the chewy word is Rowan Atkinson and especially his famous turn as a schoolmaster conducting morning registration – the pure joy of  certain words while adding a dig at the absurdity of British surnames.

Stephen Fry is another wonderfully eloquent wordsmith who chooses a word for the pleasure of its sound. And didn’t Lewis Carroll have fun with ‘Jabberwocky’, his poem where its nonsense words still make more-than-perfect sense? Which makes me wonder if this is a peculiarly British thing or if the same is true in other languages. I’d love to find out.

Do you have a favourite word?

Categories: WritingTags: , , , , ,


  1. I love inventing temporary words and I think the one which sticks in my mind and fulfills your requirement is ‘intertwingling’. It came about (pretty obviously) from intertwining and mingling. I think it has such a ‘Christmassy’ feel about it. It has become part of my own vocabulary for many years now.

  2. Cacophony, plethora, mellifluous, eschew. Ah, the love of the language. Sometimes I think we writers are all a little autistic (with all due respect for those who truly are….) Et en français….it’s not so much specific words as it is the music of the language. Once you get it well and truly in your head, you’re done for. 🙂

    • Oh no, I fear I may have ‘plethora’ knocking around ma tete now. Lovely choice of words! That’s interesting about the musicality of the French language. I think you’re right – I love hearing the sing-song rhythm especially in the shops. Bakeries can be almost operatic as Madame greets everyone. Trying to emulate that when you’re struggling to learn the language and not living in France can be a trial, though…

  3. What a wonderful post!
    I think the perfect language for sound is Italian – hence it is the perfect sound for opera.
    And the Italian language is all about the sound. The spelling, which is counter intuitive for us English speakers, makes complete auditory sense.
    Here are some of my favourite Italian words: Giotto, Ghiberti, Verrocchio and Brunelleschi and his Ospedale degli Innocenti. All art orientated, I know, but wonderful sounds nonetheless.

    • Yes, you’re so right. Which was why I never truly enjoyed going to the English National Opera, however wonderful the singing. Hearing the words in English left me feeling that I hadn’t quite seen the whole opera. And yes, Italian is a chewy language, a real work-out for the mouth, so it’s no wonder they tend to talk so loudly! Verrocchio…mmm, now there’s a lovely word.

  4. Only one word? No way. Not on your nelly. I love feckless, gormless, lugubrious. Tomfoolery is pretty good too, while redolent is redolent of smells and suggestions. And one for an English/Italian each-way bet: exquisite. In Italian it’s ‘squisito’ and I remember an aunt in Italy always using it after we’d had an exceptional meal.

    • Quite right, Ambra. I have a different word each day. And I’m thinking squisito is going to be one of them. Much better than exquisite which defies my definition of chewiness by being too complicato – the brain-assaulting word has to have a kind of flow or else a brutal glottal stop…Glottal? Hey, there’s another…

    • The Italians really do have an amazing way with words. One of my favourites is ‘schifo’ meaning ‘disgusting’ – a bit like ‘squisito’, you can get real passion into the pronunciation!

  5. (Some) Irish people have a habit of adding extra vowels to words such as “mischievous” (it becomes “mischeivious”), but this habit doesn’t extend to one particularly frabjous word: “scurrilous”.

    • Yes, scurrilous would definitely be over-egging the pudding. It’s rather like the Bristolian adding an ‘l’ at the end of words so Carla Rosa Opera becomes Carlal Rosal Operal…Scurrilous is such a dark and Dickensian word although I have a desire to say it in a pirate voice, for some reason.

  6. The first word that came into my mind bizarrely was snafu and I wasn’t even sure what it meant but the sound of it the snay and the phoo is very satisfying. I then looked it up and discovered it’s military in origin and means Situation Normal all F****D Up which is sort of pleasing. I’m a big fan of Blackadder and Rowan Atkinson has a lovely time in that rolling his tongue round insulting words usually aimed at Baldrick!

    • Perfect! Snafu just has to be said out loud and it has just the right balance of curious meaning and pleasing sound. (And now it’s got me saying NAAFI to myself as well…the gift of one word morphing into another…)

  7. Great post, Colin… picking up on the comment by Vicky, I thought of FUBAR… I, too, love language… languishing in words… delicious!

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