, Newburyport, MA


September 16, 2013

A liquid flow of words

How exact do you want to be in your speech or writing? In Basic English, you can get an awful lot done with a thousand words. But if that’s all you have, it’s like having one plain, well-worn suit of clothes or like eating porridge three times a day. Would you deny yourself attractive clothes and good varied food? Not likely, if you had the wherewithal (money, moolah, dough, lolly, cash, spondulicks …) for them.

The same principle applies with language: If you want more tools of thought, better understanding, more exact description and better communication, you need more words. Here is a congeries (!) of words that illustrate the point. You may find them to be either fun (some as antiques) or useful or both.

Some columns ago I mentioned that we often tend to use the catchall word “thing” when we can’t or don’t want to be more exact. “Hand me that thing, will you? A similar word is “stuff.” “No,” we say, “I want the other thing — next to that pile of stuff.” Suppose Joe says to you, “The guy I talked to sold me a bottle full of some liquid he says will take care of my problem.” The speaker isn’t interested in being clear or specific, so we don’t learn much at all — and what we do learn is boring. This, although the language has, by my most recent count, at least 21 separate generic words for various liquids, not including any specific liquids, like “gasoline” or “Gatorade,” but only words describing a class of liquids, such as for example, “drink” or “solution.”

Back to that bottle. Let’s try to make that guy’s statement more meaningful. We don’t know what Joe’s problem is. Is he sick, and the guy he talked to a pharmacist? He might have bought a solution, say hydrogen peroxide, or a tincture, which is a solution of something in alcohol, such as iodine. Perhaps a suspension was indicated, something that says “Shake Well Before Using.” (Not yourself — the bottle!) Or a syrup — cough, or (heaven forfend) the emetic ipecac. An emulsion is yet different, blending together materials that don’t ordinarily mix, calamine lotion being an example. Among other matters that might have brought Joe to the pharmacist, by the way, could be his observation of a serum or other exudate seeping from a wound.

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