Tuxedo Verbs

Use rich verbs, but don’t put them in tuxedos.

Constance Hale, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #346

tuxedo verbsLexicographers don’t agree on how many words there are in the English language, but just pick up an unabridged dictionary and you’ll appreciate how weighty our language is—and how many choices it gives us. But a rich vocabulary can be a double-edged sword (or should I say a seax—the ferocious fighting implement favored by the Saxons?).

English is a makeshift, cobbled-together thing. Celts, Scots, Picts, Romans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Danes, and Normans all invaded the British Isles at various times in the last 1500 years, leaving linguistic traces. Then British colonists ventured to distant realms and adopted words from the Americas, the Orient, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa (giving us, oh, moccasin, yen, bungalow, and Timbuktu).

Invent Words

All this battling and bending, pushing out and pulling in, gave us not just numerous synonyms, but a nimble language. We love new words, often inventing them with abandon: Shakespeare coined bet, drug, and dwindle; more recently minted verbs include de-bone and defriend. We have the flexibility of turning a noun into a verb, or vice versa: when the New Yorker’s Roger Angell needed to describe the motions a catcher makes to a pitcher during a baseball game, he called that “semaphoring a plan.”

The bright side of a rich vocabulary is variety. The dark side is redundancy.

Choose Your Words for Sound

Having so many choices means we can select words for music as well as meaning. We can listen for vowels and consonants that echo the sound of real things, whether the splash of water, the sniffle of a crybaby, or the snicker of the bully who makes fun of him. We can make words play with gravity (bump, dump, and thump) and levity (float, flit, and flutter). A verb like flutter can imply lightness, speed, motion, and emotion, and it can also cast a metaphorical net, catching images of things that flutter—butterflies, eyes—as well as traits like beauty, innocence, or delicacy.

Tuxedo image via Shutterstock

Next: The Danger of Redundancy