Words like Peacocks

Okyo Peacocks and PeoniesI don’t think you can be a poet and not be fascinated by the provenance of words – where they came from, how they change, their relationship to meaning and sound. Who was it who defined a writer as “someone unable to look up just one word in a dictionary”? (Incidentally, next time you feel like stretching your vocabulary, head across to FreeRice.com – challenge yourself and do something to combat world hunger.)

Back to the point of the post. A lot of words do a lovely job of suiting their subject. And not just onomatopoeic words – think how gentle ‘rain’ sounds, and how it ramps up in ‘downpour’. Or how the word ‘pouring’ makes your mouth move in a way that suggests that initial transfer of liquid, from trickle to stream to gush to dribbling off into mere dampness again. The jaggedness of ’rock’ compared to ‘stone’; the way you’re more likely to bash someone with the former, and skip the latter across a body of water. (Possibly colliding with someone in a rowboat, but that’s another program altogether.) And how cute pebble is, and how likely to be surrounded by others of its kind, rather than standing in solitary splendour like ‘pinnacle’ …

But then there’s the dark side. Words, like peacocks, that just shouldn’t sound the way they do. Words that denote something beautiful, but which sound as though they should refer to an embarrassing medical condition.

Some of it is historical. The meanings of words can shift quite dramatically – ‘gay’ is the obvious recent one, but there are words like ‘nice’ which have become the ultimate in blandness – remember that episode of Friends when Rachel was affronted by being told her boobs were … nice? Her response summed it up beautifully: “Nice? They were nice? I mean, that’s it? I mean, mittens are nice.” Well said. And yet it used to mean something much more complimentary: accurate, particular. (Ok, still not a great word for describing breasts, but still.)

Pulchritude. Sounds like something you’d buy a topical ointment to treat, doesn’t it? Or possibly an after effect of a really big night out – ‘don’t eat your rice bubbles near me, I’ve got serious pulchritude this morning.’ If you didn’t know, would you ever guess that it means ‘great physical beauty’?

And then there’s ‘nacreous’. Revolting sounding word, isn’t it? Sounds slimy and dank, the sort of thing you find under heaps of rotting vegetation. But it actually means something beautiful and delicate – ‘nacre’ is “mother-of-pearl”, that glorious soft shimmer of colour that you get inside oyster shells. Hence ‘nacreous’ means “exhibiting lustrous or rainbow-like colours; of, or resembling nacre (mother of pearl)”. A beautiful thing, but a hideously ugly sounding word. Say it out loud – feel how your mouth puckers, as though you’d tasted something nasty? Which is probably why it was the only word of that kind that Mark Doty didn’t use in “Favrile” …

5 Replies to “Words like Peacocks”

    1. Ah yes, another peacock word. I think it’s because I know the rose that it’s never really worried me so much.
      (As a matter of fact, I think it’s the rose that’s growing around the base of my clothesline …)

  1. But isn’t it delightful to be able to say one thing and connote the opposite. It’s as if someone decided to encode irony into the fabric of our wonderful language. Just a thought …

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