When I worked in a bookstore in my early twenties (my mother said it was the equivalent of putting an alcoholic behind a bar), this book was one we stocked. I worked in the tiny store inside an elite hotel alone and Nurnberg’s book was one I frequently thumbed through in between waiting on doctor’s wives looking for the latest bodice-ripper (true story).
No matter how well-educated one is, there are always a few words that, for some reason, just don’t stick.
You are not alone. According to the website Grammar.net, the following are the fifteen most frequently looked up words (at least on their site):
1. anomaly – an irregularity; an abnormality
Example: If I get struck by lightning, I’ll be a statistical anomaly!
2. ethereal – something lacking physical substance; light and intangible
Example: This ambient music is so gentle, so ethereal!
3. loquacious – talkative
Example: For someone with such limited vocabulary, you’d think she’d be less loquacious!
4. empathy – an understanding of and identification with the feelings or experience of another
Example: I empathize — I’ve been there!
5. agnostic – the position that God’s existence cannot be proven or disproved; one who doesn’t confirm or deny God’s existence
Example: A: “Are you religious?” B. “No.” A: “You don’t believe in God?” B: “I didn’t say that.” A: “Oh, you’re agnostic!”
6. protocol – a system by which a task is completed correctly
Example: Is there a protocol for parenting feral children?
7. fascist – a person who believes a dictator should be in control of a nation’s economic and social policies
Example: A: “You shouldn’t be trusted to take care of yourself.” B: “You fascist!”
8. sycophant – one who prostrates himself before and flatters another as a means to personal gain
Example: He thought I would go on a date with him if he told me how undeserving of my company he was — what a sycophant!
9. facetious – a remark or attitude characterized by insincerity and humorousness
Example: When he said that nobody likes a liar, I facetiously remarked that the guy who sets liars’ pants on fire probably likes them.
10. capricious – acting impulsively
Example: Here’s a hundred bucks, kid; go be capricious!
11. salient – highly prominent; impossible to ignore
Example: All stuffed up, she sprayed saline solution into her salient schnoz.
12. superfluous – excessive; an unnecessary amount
Example: I like icing on my cake, but this two-inch layer is a bit superfluous.
13. ambiguous – vague; allowing for many interpretations
Example: I’m sorry for the misunderstanding; my explanation was ambiguous.
14. spongiform – spongelike; porous and soft
Example: What spongiform skin you have!
15. deficit – shortfall or insufficiency
Example: His stiff personality suffered from a humour deficit
I looked over this list and none of these were among the words I have ever had trouble spelling or defining (but I truly find it hard to believe that “spongiform” is looked up all that often. Spell-check doesn’t even recognize it was a word, for cryin’ out loud).
I take umbrage with this list (go ahead… look up umbrage, I’ll wait. You think I spelled it wrongly, don’t you?). So I asked my mostly over-educated friends and universally-known big mouths to confess the words they always have to look up. Here are ten words with which we struggle (keep in mind, I’m from Texas) :
1. hemorrhoids – a mass of dilated veins in swollen tissue at the margin of the anus or nearby within the rectum
Example: “Bobby Don’s got the hemorrhoids again after sittin’ on the tractor all day.”
2. diarrhea – abnormally frequent intestinal evacuations with more or less fluid stools
Example: “Durn it! The dog’s et the bacon grease and now he’s got the diarrhea.”
3. terrific- exciting or fit to excite fear or awe
Example: Terrific. We get to chaperon the high school dance.
4. scissors – a cutting instrument having two blades whose cutting edges slide past each other
Example: “Mom! Get the peanut butter an’ scissors! Sister’s got gum stuck in the cat’s fur again.”
5. jewelry- objects of precious metal often set with gems and worn for personal adornment
Example: “Have you seen the jewelry Meemaw is makin’ outta gum wrappers an’ beer bottle caps?”
6. efficacious – having the power to produce a desired effect
Example: “I am pleased to report that the combination of antibiotics, leeches and the Mexican hat dance has proved most efficacious.”
7. alcohol – ethanol especially when considered as the intoxicating agent in fermented and distilled liquors
Example: “Somebody go get some alch.. alcho… go on a beer run.”
8. accommodate – to make fit, suitable, or congruous
Example: “I’m sorry sir, but we are unable to accommodate your request for a min-horse in your hotel room.”
9. Massachusetts – State, northeastern U.S. Area: 8,263 sq mi (21,401 sq km). Pop. (2009 est.): 6,593,587. Capital: Boston.
Example: “Try and hurt our beloved Boston, Massachusetts and we will SHUT DOWN THE CITY UNTIL WE FIND YOU, PUNKS.”
10. rhythm – an ordered recurrent alternation of strong and weak elements in the flow of sound
Example: “You can leave them all behind / To the beat of the rhythm of the night” (DeBarge only)