As a writer and an avid reader, I like to think that I have a reasonably good vocabulary. Most commonly used English words are recognizable to me, and even if I can’t define a word precisely, I usually have a sense of what it means. Unless I’m reading an essay by the late columnist William F. Buckley, who prided himself on his vast vocabulary, I’m generally on familiar turf. (Perhaps it’s a sign that I need a new Word-a-Day calendar!) So, it’s always a pleasant surprise when I come across a word that I haven’t seen before.
The word that recently sent me running to my dictionary is nugatory. Webster pronounces it as NOO-ge-tory, while the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary prefers NUH-ge-turry: Take your pick. When I found that it is defined as trifling or worthless, I was delighted. It’s a perfect word to work into conversation: “I just have a few nugatory tasks to take care of, and then I’m free to spend the evening reading a good book, or “Don’t worry about overlooking such a nugatory item.”
So, if someone asks you what’s new today, you have the perfect answer: nugatory!
I want to give a shout out this week to one of my favourite online tools: the e-reader’s embedded dictionary.
Now, I know there’s a war of words going on between the printed book lovers and the e-reader fans, each clamouring for reader loyalties.
No matter which camp you’re in, however, it’s hard to deny the convenience of the e-dictionary. It’s easy for a reader to be lazy when coming upon an unfamiliar word if it means getting up from a comfy couch to pluck a dictionary off the bookshelf. But, when that dictionary is embedded in the reading device, there’s no excuse for failing to highlight the mysterious word to get the definition. Knowledge is only a finger swipe away!
In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve become so accustomed to the touch of a fingertip yielding a definition that I’ve found myself swiping at a word on the printed page, startled to realize that nothing will result.
So, here’s the sound of one hand tapping! I’ll always love books, but for their accessible dictionaries alone, I’m glad that e-readers are here to stay.
Demonstrating verbal prowess
For writers like me, words are our currency, as well as our toys. We use them to earn a living, but we also enjoy playing with them, experimenting with their applications and test driving those we’ve newly acquired. In other words, we like to flaunt – show off – our verbal abilities.
Some writers, such as novelist William Faulkner, flout – or treat with scorn – literary convention by using words in an unusual way. His stream of consciousness writing style took readers of his era by surprise.
Flaunt and flout are two words that are often mistaken for one another, but they are actually dissimilar in both spelling and meaning. Flaunt – to show off boldly. Flout – to treat with scorn or contempt. Alas, not all writers who flout convention are able to do so with enough skill that they can later flaunt a Nobel Prize, as Mr. Faulkner could. If only. …
In English, spelling can be a tricky business for native speakers, let alone for those whose first language is something other than English. I was reminded of such spelling challenges this weekend when a friend of mine, who was born abroad, told me she had enjoyed the delicious “Sheppard’s” (i.e., Shepherd’s) pie that I had served for supper.
Shepherd’s pie combines shredded or ground meat with a potato crust. It apparently dates back to Britain in the 1700s, when potatoes were introduced as common table fare, and it was a dish that allowed cooks to use up their leftover meat creatively. When made with lamb, it is called shepherd’s pie, because grazing sheep were plentiful in the north of England and in Scotland; the beef version is often called cottage pie.
It is easy to see how someone new to Toronto or Canada could mistake shepherd for Sheppard; homonyms, or words that sound alike but are spelled differently, abound in English. For any newcomer who hasn’t seen the term written, it’s simple to assume that it is similar to Sheppard Avenue, a prominent Toronto street.
When I hear a word, I visualize its spelling in my mind – the key is to be able to visualize the CORRECT spelling. Sometime, it’s not as easy as it seems.