Tag Archives: author favorite words

My Favorite Words – Dan Rather

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Dan Rather is an American journalist who has won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work as news anchor for the CBS Evening News for 24 years. He initially ended his broadcast with the word “courage” but received a great deal of criticism, so he changed it to “That’s part of our world tonight.” Rather was also a frequent contributor to 60 Minutes. He has written eight books, including Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News (2013) and What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism (2017). Rather discusses his two favorite words that evoke memories of his parents:

My two favorite words carry strong associations with my parents. When you think about it, they were the first people to teach me the use of language, so I guess it stands to reason that my favorite words remind me of them. My father’s word was “courage,” a word that meant a lot to him beyond the dictionary meaning: coming from his mouth it was a one-word pep talk in tough times. A fine old word — ”take heart” — and a benediction I continue to invoke (but no longer on the CBS Evening News). My father tried all his life to give his children the things we’d need, not just dinner on the table but tools for the future. Courage — the word and the spirit — he gave us aplenty. On my best days, I hope I’m worthy of my father’s legacy, at least a little.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was a field or vacant lot that my mother always called a “meadow.” It was the most beautiful word she knew. Mother was strong and gentle, and “meadow” has a strong and gentle sound: the stretch of the short e and the long o clipped off. For my mother, the word conjured images of sunshine and peace, of nature that didn’t threaten even if it wasn’t altogether tamed. Those images fit my mother, too.

Read related posts: My Favorite Words – Robert Ludlum
My Favorite Words – Simon Winchester
My Favorite Words – Steven Pinker

My Favorite Words – David Foster Wallace

For further reading: Favorite Words of Famous People by Lewis Frumkes


My Favorite Words – Julia Glass

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Julia Glass is an American novelist and freelance journalist and editor. Glass is best known for Three Junes, her debut novel that won a National Book Award for Fiction (2002), and The Widower’s Tale (2010). Glass discusses her favorite word, widdershins, drawn from the world of folklore:

As a child, I was a robust consumer of folklore from every conceivable culture. One of my favorite books was a volume of Joseph Jacobs’ fairy tales, with commentary by W. H. Auden (though his name did not impress me then). The best and most haunting tale in the book was “Childe Rowland,” which begins when three boys are playing ball with their sister on a church lawn and she vanishes into thin air. The brothers­ — who will, this being a fairy tale, set out on serial quests to rescue their sister — discover that she’s been abducted by a sorcerer because she ran around the church widdershins: in the opposite direction to the sun (that is, counterclockwise).

From the moment I read that word aloud, I fell in love with it; I’ve used it more than once, though very selectively, in my fiction. To this day, it evokes mischief, superstition, and black magic, yet also the dire solemnity of saving a loved one from peril. (It also summons up a grisly illustration from the book: the youngest brother, the ultimate hero, in the necessary act of beheading an innocent horseherd.) During an extremely painful period of loss and grief in my midthirties, I remember thinking that it felt as if my life had gone widdershins. Just now, pulling that book off a shelf and paging through it for the first time in a few years, I dipped into Auden’s charming afterword and learned that a Scottish synonym for widdershins is wrang-gaites — and that the opposite of widdershins is deiseal. How many rich, delicious words the world contains, and how fortunate I am to be in the business of using them!

Read related posts: My Favorite Words – Robert Ludlum
My Favorite Words – Simon Winchester
My Favorite Words – Steven Pinker

My Favorite Words – David Foster Wallace

For further reading: Favorite Words of Famous People by Lewis Frumkes, Marion Street Press (2011)


My Favorite Words – Cynthia Ozick

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Cynthia Ozick is an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist. She has written six novels and several award-winning collections of short stories and essays, but is best known for Heir to the Glimmering World (2004) and Foreign Bodies (2010). Ozick discusses her favorite word:

“‘Pellucid,’ because of both the (limpid, lucent) sound and the nearly utopian slant of meaning. An intensity of clarity — of light, of openness, of truth, of person, of history. ‘Pelluid’ suggests — or promises — that nothing more than the thinnest, most transparent membrane lies between longing and enlightenment.”

Read related posts: My Favorite Words – Robert Ludlum
My Favorite Words – Simon Winchester
My Favorite Words – Steven Pinker

My Favorite Words – David Foster Wallace

For further reading: Favorite Words of Famous People by Lewis Frumkes, Marion Street Press (2011)


My Favorite Words – Steven Pinker

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Steven Pinker is a Canadian-born American cognitive scientist and linguist. He is currently the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department at Harvard University. Like Stephen Jay Gould, Pinker is a very popular nonfiction author; some of his best-selling books include: The Language Instinct (1994), How The Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999), and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002). In an illuminating essay, Pinker discusses his 180 favorite words, as well as their fascinating history and future:

I like the irregular verbs of English, all 180 of them, because of what they tell us about the history of the language and the human minds that have perpetuated it. The irregulars are defiantly quirky. Thousands of verbs monotonously take the -ed suffix for their past tense forms, but ring mutates to rang, not ringed, catch becomes caught, hit doesn’t do anything, and go is replaced by an entirely different word, went (a usurping of the old past tense of to wend, which itself once followed the pattern we see in send-sent and bend-bent).

Since irregulars are unpredictable, people can’t derive them on the fly as they talk, but have to have memorized them beforehand one by one, just like simple unconjugated words, which are also unpredictable… There are tantalizing patterns among the irregulars: ring-rang, sing-sang, spring-sprang, drink-drank, shrink-shrank, sink-sank, stink-stank; blow-blew grow-grew, know-knew, throw-threw, draw-drew, fly-flew, slay-slew; swear-swore, wear-wore, bear-bore, tear-tore. But they still resist being captured by a rule. Next to sing-sang we find not cling-clang but cling-clung, not think-thank but think-thought, not blink-blank but blink-blinked. In between blow-blew and grow-grew sits glow-glowed. Wear-wore may inspire swear-swore, but tear-tore does not inspire stare-store. This chaos is a legacy of the Indo-Europeans, the remarkable prehistoric tribe whose language took over most of Europe and southwestern Asia. Their language formed tenses using rules that regularly replaced one vowel with another. But as pronunciation habits changed in their descendant tribes, the rules became opaque to children and eventually died; the irregular past tense forms are their fossils. So every time we use an irregular verb, we are continuing a game of Broken Telephone that has gone on for more than five thousand years.

I especially like the way that irregular verbs graciously relinquish their past tense forms in special circumstances, giving rise to a set of quirks that have puzzled language mavens for decades but which follow an elegant principle that every speaker of the language — every jock, every 4-year-old — tacitly knows. In baseball, one says that a slugger has flied out; no mere mortal has ever “flown out” to center field. When the designated goon on a hockey team is sent to the penalty box for nearly decapitating the opposing team’s finesse player, he has high-sticked, not high-stuck. Ross Perot has grandstanded, but he has never grandstood, and the Serbs have ringed Sarajevo with artillery, but have never rung it. What these suddenly-regular verbs have in common is that they are based on nouns: to hit a fly that gets caught, to clobber with a high stick, to play to the grandstand, to form a ring around. These are verbs with noun roots, and a noun cannot have an irregular past tense connected to it because a noun cannot have a past tense at all — what would it mean for a hockey stick to have a past tense? So the irregular form is sealed off and the regular “add -ed” rule fills the vacuum. One of the wonderful features about this law is that it belies the accusations of self-appointed guardians of the language that modern speakers are slowly eroding the noun-verb distinction by cavalierly turning nouns into verbs (to parent, to input, to impact, and so on). Verbing nouns makes the language more sophisticated, not less so: people use different kinds of past tense forms for plain old verbs and verbs based on nouns, so they must be keeping track of the difference between the two.

Do irregular verbs have a future?… [Many] of the irregulars can sleep securely, for they have two things on their side. One is their sheer frequency in the language. The ten commonest verbs in English (be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, and get) are all irregular, and about 70% of the time we use a verb, it is an irregular verb. And children have a wondrous capacity for memorizing words; they pick up a new one every two hours, accumulating 60,000 by high school. Eighty irregulars are common enough that children use them before they learn to read, and I predict they will stay in the language indefinitely.

Read related posts: Words Invented by Dickens
Rare Anatomy Words
My Favorite Words – Simon Winchester

For further reading: Favorite Words of Famous People by Lewis Frumkes, Marion Street Press (2011)


My Favorite Words – Simon Winchester

atkins-bookshelf-wordsSimon Winchester is a British-born American journalist and author, recognized for his best-selling non-fiction books: The Professor and the Madman (1998), The Map that Changed the World (2001), The Meaning of Everything (2003), Krakatoa: The Day the Wold Exploded (2003), and A Crack in the Edge of the World (2005). Two of his most successful books, The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything, focus on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Naturally, Winchester has a deep respect for the OED, and of the English language itself. In the paperback edition of The Professor and the Madman, Winchester shares with his readers his favorite words out of the nearly 750,00 words defined by the OED. His selection of words were based on three criteria: first, he had to like them; second, they were “shamefully misunderstood”; and third “all can be used without the risk of sounding foolish or bombastic.” Readers will have to judge that third criterion by their own experience.

Philogyny: admiration of women (opposite of misogyny)

Tourbillion: a whirlwind or vortex; the mechanics of a watch

Sainfoin: a pink-flowered plant, of the legume family, native to Asia

Terbinth: a small Mediterranean tree, of the cashew family, that yields turpentine and tanning material

Loosestrife: plants with leafy stems and yellow or white flowers, of the primrose family

Pellucid: easily understood, transparently clear

Cacoethes: the uncontrollable urge to do something harmful

Chance-medley: a random occurrence or accident

Boustrophedon: a form of writing alternate lines that proceed in one direction, and reverse direction in the next (eg, from left to right, and then right to left)

Read related posts: Words Invented by Dickens
Rare Anatomy Words

For further reading: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, Oxford (1998)


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