, Newburyport, MA

September 16, 2013

A liquid flow of words

As Good As Your Word
Jonathan Wells

---- — 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.

Is the “guy” who sold Joe something a cook? A kitchen is filled with different kinds of liquid. Tea leaves are steeped in hot water to make an infusion. If you really have to boil something it’s a decoction. The milk and the mayo and Jell-O are all colloids, a colloid being a “substance microscopically dispersed throughout another substance.” Maybe Joe got a bottle of dry vermouth (an infusion, I expect) to mix with his gin, an “extract of choice botanicals,” as the label says, combined with a condensate, or distillate (the alcohol), which is reported to make a delicious potation. Perhaps Joe is a brewer, in which case he will be interested in a wort — an infusion of malt whose fermentation leads to beer.

Is his problem that he cannot sleep for the love of a fair lady? The bottle may contain a potion: a “drink … having or reputed to have medicinal, poisonous or magical powers, such as a sleeping potion.” Of course if he is more interested in sleeping with than just sleeping, the “guy” may have been a sorcerer who provided him with a “philtre,” a “drink supposed to arouse love, desire, etc.” ( While he is at the sorcerer’s he might ask how the search for that liquid, “the elixir of life,” is coming along. One thing Joe is not likely to get from anyone is a lixivium. If he wants to make soap the old-fashioned way, he will have to pour water through the wood-ashes himself!

Has this example drawn from this single word “liquid” convinced you (if you needed convincing) of the almost limitless opportunities for fun and creative expression we find in English? BTW: I just saw a card with a picture of an elegantly dressed maiden being wooed by her handsome swain. The card said, “Never underestimate the seductive power of a decent vocabulary.” So there’s another reason to sharpen up those linguistic tools!


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