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Let's Look At The Language

January 1, 2011

My New Year's resolution? A resolution of words

Making New Year's resolutions may have been an annual tradition in my younger days, but I don't recall a single sea change brought about by a resolve launched Jan. 1, and at some point, I must have realized that my determination to do, change or improve something is unrelated to the hanging of a new calendar.

But this New Year's Day has a special allure. It's not just the No. 1 day of the No. 1 month -- it's the Queen of Ones -- today is 1/1/11. If ever a date called out for resolutions and new beginnings, it would have to be 1/1/11.

That said, it was not immediately apparent to me what resolution I might want to make.

I know that the top New Year's resolutions include overcoming drinking, smoking, overeating and inactivity; managing money and stress; bettering education and career; and making time to travel and volunteer. Well, half these things aren't really applicable to me, and the other half are more applicable than I care to say, but none evokes much of an enthusiastic response on my part.

What finally occurred to me is that what I don't like about most traditional New Year's resolutions is their inherent seriousness.

It's only seven days past Christmas, for crying out loud. Can't we leave the gravity, introspection and self-loathing for some other time of the year?

That's when I decided to make a New Year's resolution that taps into the best of me, not the worst of me. And for me, that means tapping into my word-nerdiness.

It's hardly a secret that I love words, but even so, I rarely color outside the lines when it comes to conventional vocabulary. What that means is that among the words that intrigue me most, there is a stash of particular favorites that I make no effort to use, either in speech or writing. So, for 2011, I have resolved to choose 12 of these words and dedicate a month to each one. Once a week, at the very least, I'll speak or write the word, in a proper context.

Beginning today, January's word is digitabulist, which means "a person who collects thimbles" (I wonder how many digitabulists actually know that's what they are). In February, I'll ramp up my use of ensorcell ("enchant or fascinate"), derived from an Old French word for "sorcerer." March will find me referring to fricative consonants (such as f and th), which are uttered by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow, and in April expect to hear about gaberlunzies, a rather odd term (of unknown origin) for "strolling beggars."

Not quite as lovely as the month of May will be haruspex, a religious official in ancient Rome who interpreted omens by inspecting the entrails of sacrificial animals. Eww. If the balminess of June is late in arriving, I'll be longanimous -- that is, "long-suffering; patient." In July, I'll note that noisome should be used often, by everyone, to reinforce the understanding that it does not describe the sound of fireworks, but rather the smell of midsummer garbage.

Meaning "leading to salvation," my choice for August, salvific, is almost impossible to say without making the f sound like a v. September's word will be scop, known in Old England as "a poet or minstrel." The trees of October will arouse my interest in treen, a marvelous term for "articles made of wood, especially antiques," and although I love November, its word will be ugsome, a brilliant Scottish expression for "horrible; horrid; loathsome."

My 2011 resolution will conclude with December's Usonian ("relating to the United States" or "an inhabitant of the United States"). I think it would be great to have a national designation more specific than "American" (which technically could refer to anyone in North, Central or South America). Maybe my 2012 resolution will be to make the official adoption of Usonian my mission ... nah, one New Year's resolution per century is plenty for me.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail: languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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