A Wealth of Words

The English language lacks the lovely vowels of many languages, such as Hawaiian, Asian, and Romantic ones.  With all its harsh consonants and unpleasant vowels, English may never rank high as the “most beautiful-sounding language in the world.”  However, English does have a rich vocabulary full of words that may not be beautiful per se but have so much character or are so strange that they are fun to use.  Take this sentence for example:  “The squirrels scarfed the scrumptious scones.”  Isn’t that ridiculous but also just fun to say aloud?  Next time you find something in your fridge that is out-of-date or smells suspicious, instead of asking if it’s safe to eat, you could ask, “Is it esculent (aka edible)?”  Some other fun words include quiddity, effulgent, elenchus, vitiate, tergiversate, and numinous.

Wealth of Words imageAcquiring and implementing new English words can be not merely fun but also have practical applications.  Precise words enhance all types of writing, improving clarity and making sentences more compelling.  A good exercise to increase your vocabulary is to write down unusual words that you encounter.  Sometimes I list them in a little notebook as I’m reading.  Later, look up the definitions of the words and practice using them until you fully understand their meanings and can incorporate them into your own conversations and writing.  Another good way to discover new words is to find synonyms for words you commonly use.  When a word has too broad a definition or is overused, it can become weak.  Using a variety of terms makes each one more meaningful.

English has a wealth of words that are fun and free to use—whether they are “million dollar” words or not.  My only caveat is to be careful so that you don’t overload your conversations or writings with presumptuous-sounding words.  Either use an outlandish word here and there just for personal pleasure or work hard to master new words so that you can incorporate them smoothly and naturally into your vocabulary.  One way in which you can integrate new words into your speech is by reading books that have broad vocabularies.  Books from previous centuries are often a good starting place for this as they can have rich vocabularies of terms that may have fallen out of use but are not yet archaic.  These books can introduce you to new words, familiarize you with unique words you’ve seen before but never used, and give you examples of how to use them properly.

In an era in which we idolize that which is “free” in cost, I think we often undervalue and ignore the wonderful gift we have in the form of the English language.  Improving our vocabulary and discovering new words can have so many benefits, from personal enjoyment to improved communication and even better reading comprehension skills.  With such a wealth of words at our fingertips, I think it’s sad that we don’t appreciate and use the English language more.

P.S. Only once we become brave enough to make recondite words quotidian will our conversations truly coruscate.  (And yes, that is an example of what not to do with new words, but sometimes it’s too entertaining to resist!)

Frank’s Social Experiment – Chapter 2

(For the complete series click here)

Frank was freaking out. Maybe it’s fine. I just need to sit for a minute, he thought. Tenderly rotating his torso, Frank raised one elbow onto the sofa and levered himself onto the couch, careful to keep his left leg elevated and away from the floor as he raised it. Once in a sitting position, Frank rested for a moment. Okay, maybe it’s not so bad – like a sprain perhaps. Slowly Frank lowered his hurting leg to rest his foot on the carpet. Shooting pain went up his leg once again, and Frank raised the leg with a groan.

He knew he couldn’t hold his leg in that position forever, though. Lying beside Frank on the couch, Olaf, the cat, looked quizzically at Frank, then went back to cleaning his fur.

“Hospital,” said Frank, aloud this time. Looking at Olaf, Frank said again, “Hospital, Olaf. I’ve got to go.”

Looking around for something to use as a makeshift crutch, Frank saw the floor lamp next to the couch. Sliding carefully to the right edge of the couch, Frank grasped the lamp and pulled himself shakily onto one foot.

He needed his keys and wallet.

Using the lamp as a staff, Frank took a step with his good leg, then yanked the lamp out in front of him. The force of the movement pulled the cord out of the wall, and it trailed behind him. Limping now towards his room, Frank stopped for a break at the hall, leaning his body to catch his breath—holding one leg aloft and clutching for dear life onto the lamppost was winding him. Resuming his trek, Frank limped into his room and sat down on his bed. Gathering his keys and wallet, Frank also decided to go ahead and put a shoe on his good foot. His socks were in his chest of drawers across the room, but his shoes were directly underneath his bed, so Frank decided to slip the shoe on and not worry about the sock.

With the shoe laced, Frank stood up once again and began his kangaroo-hop-slide towards the door. Reaching the door to leave his apartment, Frank turned to say goodbye to Olaf. “Be good Olaf; I’ll be back…when I can—you have enough food and water for tonight.”

Olaf paused his grooming and looking over at Frank for a moment with the same curious apathy he might have towards a dying bird.

Frank turned to go. “Bye,” he said quietly, flipping off the light – the pain couldn’t stop his energy-conscious habits.

Opening the door, Frank struggled out of his room into the apartment building’s breezeway. It was empty. Frank struggled to get the door locked but finally succeeded.

His leg was throbbing noticeably more now. With the initial shock of the injury and bustle of getting out the door wearing off, a sharp throbbing pain had set in. Frank fought back tears until a random thought distracted him, a memory from his high school history class, a quotation from Abraham Lincoln after Lincoln lost an election, “It hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too old to cry.” Frank decided he was not going to cry.

Limping slowly over to the stairs to descend to the parking lot, Frank stopped to analyze the first major problem—how was he going to get down the stairs? He could leave the lamp and simply use the handrail to steady himself down. But he didn’t want to leave the lamp out—it was a good lamp; he didn’t want to lose it. And plus, once he descended he would still need it to hop to his car.

Below Frank, the tap of feet on the metal-and-concrete steps drew closer. Around the landing of the steps stepped one of the most beautiful women Frank had ever seen. She had her dark hair tied up in a loose bun and was wearing a t-shirt with a stylized grizzly bear on it and purple sweatpants. In both hands, she held bulging bags of groceries.

Frank hopped back from the stairs to unblock the stairwell. “Sorry,” he said. “You can come on up.” The woman clipped lightly up the stairs and passed Frank with a smile.

“Thanks,” she said. Noticing the lamp and the raised leg, she stopped after passing. “What’s going on? Are you all right?”

Frank, unused to social interaction, didn’t say anything at first. The most beautiful woman I have ever seen in real life is standing right in front of me saying words. Surely not to me. Searching within his mind for the right response to this social situation, Frank remembered what to say: “I’m doing fine.” But he wanted to be authentic too. “Just…going to the emergency room.”

“Oh my!” said the woman. “Do you need someone to drive you there? Let me go set these bags inside, and then we can go.”

Frank had forgotten what it was like to talk to other human beings. “No,” he said. “It’s fine. I can do it.” To prove the point, Frank turned to descend the stairs. Bringing the lamp down with his left arm, Frank missed the step landing, and the lamp slid uselessly down the stairs. Losing his balance, Frank flailed and grabbed desperately onto the handrail with both hands, averting a fall and further injury.

“Do not move! I’m going to be right out,” said the woman. “You’ll be fine, but wait, and I’ll help you down.”

A few moments passed. Frank held onto the handrail. He wasn’t about to try and move again.

A moment later, the woman reappeared. “Hey,” she said. “Grab onto the handrail, and I’ll support you on the other side, and we’ll just take it one step at a time. Okay?”

Frank, as socially uncomfortable as he was, was not about to object. The pain was getting worse, and his foot felt heavier by the second as he attempted to keep it elevated. The woman took Frank’s left arm and shouldered his weight. “All right,” she said. “On two, let’s step. One—two!” Frank, supported by the handrail and the woman, stepped his good leg down.

“Great. See, this won’t be too bad,” said the woman. “I’m Janet, by the way. What’s your name?”

“Frank,” said Frank, as they took another step. He was trying very hard now to keep from setting down his left leg – the fear of further pain outweighed the growing leadenness.

“Yeah, try to keep the leg elevated – don’t want to put any weight on it. So what happened?” said Janet.

Frank hadn’t been required to tell a story in quite some time. He tried to think of the particulars, of how to make the story interesting. “I sat down on it,” he said.

“Ah,” said Janet, unsure of what to make of this. She looked at Frank, and Frank felt the body image issues he had been plagued with since a young age—the larger-than-average rear end, the belly that had developed during college.

“Yeah, I thought I was about to sit on my cat.”

“Aah,” said Janet, “I’m more of a dog person, but cats are cool too! What’s your cat’s name?”

“Olaf,” said Frank. She’s more of a dog person. Frank sighed internally. He had been slowly forming a romantic story in his mind about himself and Janet—the woman of his dreams helping him to get to the hospital, kick-starting a passionate romance as she helped nurse him back to health.

Ah well. Cats and dogs.

“Olaf…,” repeated Janet, “That’s a good name for a cat.”

Maybe there’s hope, thought Frank.

“I’m gonna have to set my leg down soon,” said Frank, breathing hard now. “Like, really soon.”

“Hold on for just a minute more,” said Janet. “We’re almost there.” Stepping down the last step, Janet pointed to the red Honda Civic just a few feet away.

“Okay, I’m going to open the back door for you, and you can just slide yourself right in.”

Frank, heaving big gulps of air, summoned the last of his strength and leaned gingerly back into the seat, holding his leg aloft, then slowly lowering it and crossing it over his good leg, allowed it to hang freely down while letting his muscles rest.

Janet shut the back door carefully, then slid into the driver’s seat, fastened her seat belt, and hastened to the hospital. It was at this moment that Frank started feeling dizzy and lightheaded. The world grew black as he passed out.

I Watched Jesus Christ Superstar (Sorry, Mom!)

One of the many controversial things my mom, coming of age as she did in the 1970s, experienced somewhat firsthand was the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s (in)famous rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. I vaguely remember, at some point in my young adulthood, discussing this musical depiction of the last days of Jesus with my mom. Way back in the day, she was a practicing Catholic, and by the time I came around, she was a devout Presbyterian, and so she was able to give me both some idea of the original controversy surrounding the musical’s release as well as the dubious theology inherent to the musical.

So, when I discovered, about an hour before it was due to air, that NBC’s latest contribution to the live TV musical fad was Jesus Christ Superstar, I of course watched it.

First, to start with the good, I have few, if any, technical criticisms. To give an over-obvious compliment, Webber knows how to compose music, and Rice knows how to write lyrics. I’ve still got the tune and rhyme of “Everything’s Alright” stuck in my head 24 hours later. The stage design of this production was impressive, and performance-wise I don’t really have any complaints. This was a star-studded cast, with vocals from John Legend as “Jesus” (quotes quite intentional) and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene of course magnificent, and shout out to Norm Lewis’ fantastic baritone as Caiaphas. The relatively unknown Brandon Victor Dixon completely stole the show as Judas Iscariot (fun side fact, Dixon apparently recently played another famous villain/arguable anti-hero, portraying Aaron Burr in Hamilton).

In fact, “Damned for All Time/Blood Money,” Judas’ desperate attempt to justify his betrayal of Jesus, was one of the truly stand-out numbers to me. Dixon’s mounting despair as he begs Caiaphas, “I have no thought at all about my own reward/I really didn’t come here of my own accord/Just don’t say I’m/damned for all time” was palpable even through the distance of a TV screen. It was certainly a dramatization – and at odds with the Biblical portrait of Judas as a man who routinely stole and deceived – but, well, it was good theater. Sorry, Mom.

However, this brings me to the not-so-good elements of Jesus Christ Superstar. True to my half-formed impression of its reputation, the musical contains many, many elements that could, charitably, be described as “troubling.” There’s a lot of speculative relationship dynamics between Jesus and his followers, including, mostly famously, the maybe-one-sided-on-her-side but definitely-not-platonic feelings between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, as vocalized in the hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” But this, what I saw to be more of an interlude, didn’t really affect my feelings towards the overall plot, so to speak. What very much did was this: Jesus Christ Superstar is distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of a divine Jesus, ethereal light show at the culmination of the crucifixion notwithstanding.

I think the musical was trying to be all ambiguous about what exactly Jesus was, allowing some vaguely supernatural elements, but it really just ended up avoiding its own question: “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ/Who are you? What have you sacrificed?/Jesus Christ Superstar/Do you think you’re what they say you are?” And this, in turn, is because the musical, at odds with the long-ago angel’s question, is attempting to seek the living among the dead, so to speak. For, in this musical, Jesus dies, and there is no resurrection.

Interestingly, I find that Godspell, another musical depiction of Jesus and his apostles, also debuting on stage in 1971 – apparently this sort of thing was in vogue at the time? – to be, despite its hippy sensibilities, a more overtly religious and thus slightly more accurate adaptation of the gospel story. As Jesus is on the “cross” (it’s very artsy, guys), he cries “Oh God, I’m dying.” To which the chorus echos: “Oh God, you’re dying.” Emphasis mine, for the switch in pronouns is very important here. Of course, afterwards Godspell doesn’t have a resurrection either, instead giving in and just sayin’ that it’s all about love, regardless of why that love exists, and that we should just let the little light of Jesus shine on through us. Although why the light of a dead man should mean anything to us is likewise not really answered – we are once again left to seek life in death, full stop.

But back to Jesus Christ Superstar. There are those who would argue that it’s a great tool for evangelism, and I’m certainly not saying that it could never be used as such. From my cursory scanning of the internet’s reactions, apparently non-believers found the crucifixion depiction to be somewhat affecting. Yet I would imagine that the musical would be better used as just that, a tool, rather than a complete text. For what these non-believers are reacting to is, as Mary herself sings, “just a man,” with Rice and Webber making heavy use of Jesus’ more cryptic answer to the question of his divinity, “That’s who you say I am,” rather than his many absolute statements, e.g.: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Of course, NBC’s production almost, though I think unintentionally, produced a complete ending. Jesus dies, his apostles reflect (sort of), the musical ended, almost all the cast came out for their bows, and then, with a blaze of light and heraldry, Legend – still dressed as Jesus – emerged from behind stone-looking doors for his solo curtain call. We can argue about any inherent heresy in artistic depictions of God at another date, but I think if it had then been proclaimed: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things,” then, well, maybe

Eh, who am I kidding.  Jesus Christ Superstar would still be a very iffy depiction of the gospel, and, like my mom told me, for very good reasons (this short little blog post actually doesn’t touch half of them). But I might have more unreservedly recommended this latest production as a highly flawed dramatization, rather than how I ended up putting it to Mom yesterday: “I mean, [watch it] if you want to watch it. There were some rockin’ moments, not gonna lie. Technically great, spiritually barren. Alice Cooper was Herod, though.”