October 27, 2005

The World's Most Useless Words

 must admit to a fascination with words. But even my vocabulary passion fails when I come across some words that seem to have so little use they are quite pointless. Why do they exist? Take a few examples, and ask yourself, "How often would I use this word?"

Take the word ucalegon. Never heard of it, right? Nor me, and there's a very good reason for this. Because even if you knew what it meant, your opportunity to use it would be extremely limited. For ucalegon means a neighbor whose house is burning down. It's hardly a common occurrence. And even if your neighbor's house was burning down, that's surely not the time to be looking through a lexicon to describe your "neighbor-whose-house-is-burning-down and I'm just looking for the right word before I go over to help!"

While you are standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes, your mind idly wanders, and you find yourself staring intently at the soapsuds swirling in the water. "Ah," you say to yourself as consciousness returns, "I was just indulging in lecanoscopy." Right!

Lecanoscopy: the act of hypnotizing yourself by staring into a sink filled with water. Hard to use as the process occurs, since you're hypnotized anyway, I suppose. So if it were a verb, you couldn't use it in the present tense, because you wouldn't be aware you were doing it. Maybe you couldn't use it in the past, because if you had been hypnotized looking into the water, would you be aware of having done so when you came to? Maybe you can really use the word only about other people.

1544 page31Have you ever met someone who thought he or she was an ox? Nor me. But just in case you ever do, be prepared and add boanthropy to your vocabulary. Boanthropy is a condition in which someone thinks they're an ox.

Maybe you know someone who has a nervous or mental disorder caused by drinking too much absinthe. In that case absinthism is the word of the day for you. Perhaps vaguely more useful, but hard to remember and even harder to pronounce, and surely a word that would gain you plenty of strange looks, is euneirophrenia. What does it mean? Well, of course, euneirophrenia is the peace of mind that comes after a pleasant dream. All very helpful in daily conversation, no doubt. As a variety of musical glasses, hydrodaktulpsychicharmonica is a stunning word of almost no use whatsoever, and impressively long, too.

But if you're stumped and think all such activity is over-rated, then you are certainly on the right track to use the word floccinaucinihilipilification. An amazingly extended word of uselessness, which actually does mean the action of estimating as worthless. That there should be such a word surely goes against all good principles of civilization. But it's there, and somebody invented it. Of the making of many words there is absolutely no end.

The Dhammapada contains a wise statement, "Better than a thousand useless words is one single word that gives peace," while Paul in the New Testament comments, "I had rather speak five words that make sense than to speak ten thousand words in a language that others don't know" (1 Cor. 14:19, CEV).

Words are too important to be misused, or to be created for uselessness. While we may smile and use the odd word tongue-in-cheek, words are the currency of conversation, the way we share with others. In contrast to the above useless words, we invest in words who and what we are, our fears and hopes, our nightmares and our dreams.

Yet the most important word is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. God as the Word, the divine-human communication that comes to us, becomes us, and lives and talks and walks with us. The Word who dies here at our hands, and who through the communicated Word is our salvation.

The most useful, meaningful Word of all.

Jonathan Gallagher is the United Nations liaison director for the General Conference.