By Rachel Abelson

Where do the weird words of our world fall within the approval matrix of today’s writers? Is obscure vocab savvy an in or an out? Let’s start here: Buzzfeed's recent list of such "Everyday Things You Never Knew Had Names," and this whole website devoted to even weirder ones.

You’ll find words like “lunule” (the ivory crescent of a fingernail tip), “petrichor” (the leafy, sedimentary scent after a good rain) and, my favorite, “gynecomastia” (man boobs).

Does the precision offered by these words poeticize or demystify the peculiarities of everyday life? And to what effect? When we encounter such tidbits in writing, do we regard their usage as pretensions, a gassy wamble in our diction innards? Or do we read them as aesthetic ferrules, the ceremonious flourish topping off the crafty potential of our pencils with the coppery glint of artistry?

I once took a workshop from an avid fictionaut of literary guru Gordon Lish, whose strict principles of craft included such prohibitions as namedropping in fiction: giving lip service to real-world brands, corporations and other familiar proper nouns of modern culture. “Don’t ever write ‘Uggs,’” the professor told us. “Say ‘furry, shearling boots’ or something, but never, ever, ever write ‘Uggs.’”


Okay, sure, I get it. “Uggs” is empty and lazy. Hear how it chokes out your throat: "Ugggghhhs." The word is as banal as the wearing of such boots in public. The familiar is much more lush when defamiliarized, and if you’re a Lishite, you abide: you describe things implicitly and sharply, but not with an easy shot-out. And so writers like Sam Lipsyte and Christine Schutt make casual mention of Dr. Zizmor’s subway ads or history’s most famous vibratorin their novels—but never, ever by name.  

But what I wanna know is what about a word like “philtrum”? Where does “philtrum” belong in fiction? Does the same Lishy rule apply? Is philtrum the high diction equivalent to “Uggs”?

And which do we prefer: “He tongued his philtrum in anticipation and leaned in for a sloppy kiss,” or, “He tongued the smooth cleft beneath his nostril slits in anticipation and leaned in for a sloppy kiss”?

Uggs, I think I prefer neither. But perhaps you see the point.

More often than not, such weird words are probably better for impressing dates than wowing readers. I’ve always been a fan of funny, cute horticultural and landscaping terminology, but the usage of “ha-ha” and “desire paths” is hard to warrant in most contemporary fiction. Much better to drop such quirky charmers in cocktail party convo, cajole someone’s pants off with a few adorkable bon mots, and then ha-ha all the way along the most serviceable desire path back to their apartment.

Only then, it seems, does the road less traveled make all the diction.

Photo: (altered)