Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, “Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”
Those of us who make a living “combining words” appreciate their power to convey even the most-subtle shades of meaning. I love that “pretentious,” “ostentatious,” and “haughty” are all synonyms for “arrogant.” But under the surface, they all have different meanings.
What follows is a list of some of my favorite words, a discussion of their shades of meaning, and an example of how it’s used:
• Nonplussed. Means bewildered or unsure how to respond. I always think of nonplussed as that look on someone’s face when they’ve been completely blindsided in a conversation or meeting. Example: The CEO’s tirade has left me completely nonplussed.
• Aspersion. Means an attack on somebody’s reputation or good name, as in “to cast aspersions on.” A second meaning is a sprinkling, especially with holy water. Not sure how this word ended up with these two definitions. Example No. 1: Let those without fault cast the first aspersions. Example No. 2: There was an aspersion of dust on the books.
• Insipid. Lacking flavor or taste; lacking qualities that excite, stimulate, or interest; dull. Example: Why do you insist on writing such insipid, dim-witted blog posts?
• Acquiesce. To accept or consent by silence or by omitting to object. So to acquiesce is not just to give in, but to give in by not objecting. (Acquiesce is also the most difficult word to spell on this list. Remember, “i” before “e.”) Example: Do not acquiesce to his unreasonable demands for perfection.
• Feckless. To be feckless means to lack purpose or be without skill; ineffective, incompetent; spiritless; weak; worthless. With most words in English, if you remove the suffix you have another word. This is not the case with feckless, as “feck” is not a word. Example: We were embarrassed to witness such a feckless performance.
• Diurnal. Occurring or active during the daytime rather than at night; relating to or occurring in a 24-hour period; daily. I love this word because until I learned its definition, I never knew that “nocturnal” had an opposite. Example: In general, college students are not cut out for a diurnal life.
• Indefatigable. Someone who is indefatigable is incapable of being fatigued; not readily exhausted; unremitting in labor or effort; untiring; unwearying. Also, a great name for a ship—the HMS Indefatigable was a 64-gun third-rate ship of the line launched by the Royal Navy in 1784. Interestingly, the antonym of this word is fatigable, not defatigable. (Indefatigable is the most difficult word to pronounce on this list. Say it 5 times fast.) Example: She was indefatigable in her efforts to ensure accuracy.
• Supercilious. Having or showing arrogant superiority to and disdain of those viewed as unworthy. Arrogance + attitude = supercilious. Example: I find Anna to be very cold and supercilious.
• Disingenuous. Not straightforward or candid; insincere or calculating. Example: It’s simply disingenuous to encourage others to volunteer when you have no intention of volunteering yourself.
• Pensive. If you are pensive, you are engaged in serious thought or reflection; given to earnest musing: often implying some degree of anxiety, depression, or gloom; thoughtful and somewhat melancholy. Example: A pensive gloom settled in as the afternoon progressed.
Please note that this list is in no way comprehensive. I collect words the way some people collect LinkedIn connections—randomly and with the intent to put them to use at a later time.
Readers, do you have any favorite words to share?
A version of this article also appeared on the author’s blog, Impertinent Remarks.