NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

February 11, 2013

Word play for fun and profit

Sign in a restaurant: “Special Offer! Two Drinks for the Price of Two Drinks!” This absurd ad is a sort of epigram. The idea the first words lead you to expect is suddenly turned on its head, and you laugh at the ad’s ingenuity (unless of course you have only enough money for one drink) as your brain fires a few more neurons to meet the challenge. (This may be the same place that had the sign, “Keep kids at your table. Unattended children will be given a shot of espresso and a free puppy.”)

The acquaintance you meet in the bar (on your way out) says, “Hey, man, how’s your corporosity sagaciating?” a familiarity which annoys you, but makes you wonder where he got that phrase, and if it means anything. It turns out that he got this bit of word play (directly or indirectly) from James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” It doesn’t mean much, but it makes you think — about “corporal” and “corpulent” and “sagacity” and what “-osity” means and how anything could “sagaciate.”

As mentioned in a previous column, many people think there’s a clear link between vocabulary and intelligence. This does not mean that one’s vocabulary is forever limited by an IQ number or some other scientific or pseudo-scientific measure of that elusive quality “intelligence.” My view is that if you can increase your vocabulary, you can increase your “practical” intelligence, because words are the tools of thought, and when we acquire more of them we can do more complex things with language. Having more or better words means we can make better distinctions between different objects and ideas, handle more abstract concepts and ultimately make better decisions. And it is clear that play with words helps you find “more and better. “

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