In my writings, I use whatever words that come to my head and that I feel comfortable using and never go to a dictionary or thesaurus to look for the appropriate word. I do not gratuitously use swear words or scatological words unless I am quoting someone else. It is not that such words offend me (they don’t) but it is just not my style to use them. I also do not shy away from words that are not too commonly used as long as I think they exactly fit my needs and are not so esoteric that too many readers are baffled because its meaning is not clear from the context.
This habit of not looking up the meaning of words but thinking I know it sometimes leads me to use words in the wrong way, because I had inferred the wrong meaning for them from the context that I read them in and did not bother to check further for accuracy. One such word I recall is ‘erstwhile’ that I had seen most commonly in the phrase ‘erstwhile friend’. I had thought that it meant a shallow or unreliable or fair weather friend and used it in a post in that sense, but a reader corrected me to say that it actually meant ‘formerly’ or ‘in the past’ and so what I had said was factually wrong.
In principle, it should be easy to correct this habit and look up the meaning of new words that I encounter. But the catch with being old and having read widely is that I rarely encounter new words anymore. Almost all the words I encounter are familiar to me. As a result I do not know which words are those that I know accurate meanings of and which words that I do not. It would not be an efficient use of my time to check each and every word that I have the faintest doubts about.
The genuinely new words that I do encounter are frequently those generated by the young and thus would be incongruous for someone like me to use anyway or they are these horrible neologisms like ‘staycation’, cobbled together from existing words that do not take a Roget to figure out their meaning.
But there are some words that I read that I would not use even though I know I could use them correctly. One such word is ‘behooves’. Another is ‘bespoke’. Both sound to me like archaic words, something Shakespearean like ‘perchance’ or ‘methinks’ or ‘verily’. All those are perfectly good words too but few use them anymore except ironically or for comedic effect.
‘Behooves’ and ‘bespoke’ are used with dead seriousness by writers but somehow they grate on me. I am sure that there are other words that produce a similar reaction in me but I cannot think of them at the moment. I suspect this blog’s readers too have words that they avoid using for some reason even though they are perfectly good words.