Some words behoove me not

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.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Not much bothers me (‘bespoke’ is fine as an adjective for custom-made stuff, ‘behooves’ is just formal and rather old-fashioned), but recent use of the the word ‘solution’ as a noun for any old product grates on me. It’s usually used for software, I think, but why not anything? Change “Cups and Goblets, Inc.” to “Drinking Solutions”. Yech.

  2. phhht says

    When I began to learn Swedish,I was surprised and delighted to find that in that language, behöva is a common, everyday word meaning “to need.” Such cognates still please me today, almost forty years later.

  3. Callinectes says

    Every now and then I like looking up rare words that no one uses. I delight in their sounds, obscure definitions, and frankly bizarre nature. I use them for a while, but unfortunately I tend to forget them.

    A recent discovery of mine is “hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian,” which means “pertaining to extremely long words”. But some are actually useful, and poetic. “Brontide” is “the low rumbling of distant thunder,” “knismesis” is light tickling, when something is “ginglyform” it is “hinge-shaped”, a “gongoozler” is an idle spectator, “runcation” is the act of weeding, “zenzizenzizenzic” is supposedly a number raised to the eighth power, while an “aeolist” is “a pompous windy bore who pretends to have inspiration,” a stealth insult if I ever saw one.

  4. abnormalwrench says

    The word “holistic” really bugs me. It is always used in a condescending way, usually unintentionally. Same with “nuance”.

  5. DonDueed says

    Your occasional incorrect use of words due to inferring their meanings from context is hardly unique to you, Mano. I’ve done it many a time.

    One case that seems to be common, and may be due to this mechanism, is “penultimate”. Many folks seem to think it means “last” or “greatest”, but it really means “next to last” or “all but ultimate”.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    I always chuckle when I hear ‘disambiguate’. It sounds like a comment on the size of someone’s meal.

  7. Silentbob says

    I’m not a big fan of moreover or furthermore. It seems also or even and will do just as well.

  8. says

    I often change words depending on (or upon, if you will) whom I’m talking to. I grew up with a wide variety of English -- I’m Canadian and had British (read: Scouse) ex-pats for parents, watched a lot of British TV shows on PBS, grew up watching (mostly) US TV shows and there were Indian immigrants in the neighborhood and at school. I have a mixed bag of words and phrases to use (and yet I have a hard time identifying accents…). If I say “chesterfield”, most people have no clue.

    I will use “don’t have” when speaking to Canadians and Americans, but “haven’t any” when speaking to those from the UK and Ireland, among other changes. “As well” instead of “also” seems to be a Canadian-only affectation, so I have to check that sometimes. But I always use Canadian/British spellings when writing to avoid ambiguity (e.g. cheque versus check). I also never liked “You shouldn’t…” and stick with “One shouldn’t…”. People say “One…” sounds archaic, yet those same people will say “You…” sounds accusatory or insulting.

    I actually like using archaic words and spellings, especially when arguing verbally. Most people revert to simpler English when they are angry. They cease comprehending and have to stop their train of thought to concentrate on what the archaic words mean. It’s especially funny when someone yells, “Speak English!” and listeners uninvolved in the discussion say that I am. (I’m not trolling people, I’m vexing them. ^_^)

    I avoid profanity in writing unless I forget to edit out when quoting others. (Speaking is different because it involves visual and audible clues as to tone and intent.) It’s easy enough to edit out swearing since most is used as adjectives (“that bleeping guy!” to “that guy!”). As nouns, it requires a little more creativity. There’s two main reasons I avoid profanity:

    1) Dishonest argument. People will claim “Oh, you’re swearing, I don’t have to listen to you!” as an excuse for avoiding an issue or question (see also: tone policing). It’s usually the religious and conservative ideologues, but not always -- some high profile atheists are guilty of this. Those who claim “offense” at hearing profanity and insults are quite willing to use the words themselves, and do.

    2) Emotion. Sometimes writers are perceived as being emotional by using profanity, or the readers see the profanity and react emotionally. Either way, it can inflate disagreements into arguments and get unpleasant. Not using profanity makes that less likely to happen. It also makes it easier to apologize, or not to have to apologize at all.

    Whoops, that got long.

  9. Silentbob says

    I don’t personally have a problem with behooves, because although it’s surely a bit musty, the way it’s commonly used today…

    1. to be necessary or proper for, as for moral or ethical considerations; be incumbent on:
    It behooves the court to weigh evidence impartially.

    2. to be worthwhile to, as for personal profit or advantage:
    It would behoove you to be nicer to those who could help you.

    … I don’t really think there’s a more modern word with precisely the same meaning. The source I’ve linked to gives as synonyms for the first definition:

    suit, befit, beseem.

    but these seem to me to either be equally as archaic, or to not have the same “moral or ethical” nuance as behoove.

    That is to say, I don’t think, “it suits the court to weigh evidence impartially”, or, “it befits the court to weigh the evidence impartially” carry the same nuance that the court has some moral obligation to weigh the evidence impartially.

  10. machintelligence says

    A couple of word usages that I have recently encountered that deserve more usage:
    Substition — failing to believe something that is fact. It is the opposite of superstition (which is, of course belief in something that is not true.) Evolution and global warming are conservative substitions. Coined by Terry Pratchet

    Kettle logic — using more than one excuse, all of them contradictory
    I didn’t return a broken kettle.
    I t was broken when I borrowed it.
    I never borrowed it in the first place.
    Coined by Sigmund Freud

  11. Suido says

    It didn’t take long in my career as an engineer to find people making up words to sound smarter. My favourite has been optioneering, aka assessing options. Fun word, but not something that should ever be found in a professional report.

    Spendthrift got me once upon a time, as I assumed it meant similar to thrifty.

  12. Mano Singham says


    I always knew the meaning of spendthrift and had never considered this alternative meaning until you pointed it out. But you are right, the ‘wrong’ meaning does make more logical sense!

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