A word of Christmas advice

Still looking for a last little gift or stocking stuffer for your kids or nieces and nephews or other youngsters of your acquaintance?

Give them a word.

That’s right, a word, presented on a card, along with its definition.


A carefully chosen word is a gift they may not know they need, but it’s one they’ll benefit by. Spend some time with the younger generations and you’ll soon notice that from Gen Y on down, there’s an acute shortage of spoken terms abroad in youth land.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

One could be forgiven for thinking all conversation is composed of sentences that begin with It’s, I’m, She’s, or He’s, proceed immediately to a like, and end with cool, awesome, sweet, or sick or their antonyms, lame, ridic, or (an) epic fail. Or the ubiquitous whatever. Add basically for broadening, literally (usually when something is meant figuratively), you know as a conversational space-saver, and totally as an intensifier, and sometimes it seems as though you’ve corralled an entire generation’s herd of words.

To the unaccustomed ear, it can sound like a game of verbal musical chairs, with each oft-recurring term circling around again and again as they all scramble for a spot in the sing-song cadence of the conversation.

Perhaps you feel like a Grinch for wishing several of those tropes could accompany the old year into history — and take no problem with them. Well, don’t. You are not alone. Asked in a recent Marist College survey to rate the most annoying current conversational terms, 38 percent of American adults chose whatever, while 22 cited like, 18 percent settled on you know, and 14 percent singled out just sayin’.

Which is where a Christmas gift of words comes in.


There’s something empowering about acquiring a new word. It’s a step toward individuality in a bland and homogenized verbal age. When she was eight, my niece introduced random into her vocabulary, a term she employed with the frequency, if not always the precision, of a statistician. Her pride in her new acquisition was a delight to witness.

Nor is that just a youthful pleasure. Anyone who loves the variety and texture of English has no doubt felt a similar sense of satisfaction at discovering a useful new word.

I’m not talking about those obscure terms that Cormac McCarthy dusts off to describe minor aspects of a cowboy’s equipage or the abstruse usages John Banville employs for his involute imaginings.

No indeed. You won’t find hackamore or rowel or tundish or scumble under the tree from me. Getting one of those is like unwrapping a necktie you’ll never wear.

So what words will I be giving this year?


My avuncular role as agent provocateur means I’ll likely be handing out arbitrary and unjust to the under-10 set — and with a recommended usage: “Tell your parents that an 8 o’clock bedtime is arbitrary and unjust.”

Ambivalent, meanwhile, makes a good gift for teenagers, and has this added bonus: It might help nudge whatever along the road to retirement.

Ambivalent, meanwhile, makes a good gift for teenagers, and has this added bonus: It might help nudge whatever along the road to retirement.

But let’s say you also have some college students on your list, or that you don’t want the adults to feel left out.

Well, try skift, which I recently ran across in Charles Frazier’s “Nightwoods,” a precise yet poetic term that means a small amount or light fall, as in a skift of snow or rain. There’s a term any New Englander should be happy to have in her vocabulary.

Or spoondrift, the spray blown from cresting waves during a gale, a word whose discovery added an extra dollop of enjoyment to reading W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Narrow Corner.”

Or this gem found in a passage about Queen Victoria’s growing devotion to Albert. “At length he perceived that . . . every velleity of his had only to be expressed to be at once Victoria’s.” Who wouldn’t be happy to open a Christmas envelope and find within that intriguing term signifying a slight wish or inclination?

New words are an encouraging nudge toward creativity and linguistic dexterity. They don’t just expand a vocabulary; they also enlarge understanding. And they can be passed on to others without ever being relinquished.

So this season, give a word, the gift that keeps on living.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.