Wednesday 24 January 2018

The best word ever

"What actually makes a word great? How do you determine that 'zephyr' is more delightful than 'zaftig'? How do you decide that 'isthmus' is just slightly less awesome than 'kerfuffle'?" If you have doubts, read what Megan Garber writes in the Atlantic:

A man, his blog, and an adventure in lexicographic awesomeness.

Ted McCagg is a creative director in advertising in Portland, Oregon. In his spare time, for the past five years or so, McCagg has been keeping a blog,"Questionable Skills" -- the content of which consists almost entirely of drawings, some of them the bracket-style rankings that are a familiar feature of March Madness.

A few months ago, McCagg began using his blog and his bracket system to answer a question: What is the best word ever? Not the funniest word or the most erudite word or the most whimsical word ... but The Best Word, full stop. What if, you know, the scallawag could eke out a thingamajig that would help him select the least milquetoast morsel from our linguistic smorgasbord?

Today, McCagg has answered his question. The best word ever -- according to deep lexicographical research, science, taste, and common sense -- is this: diphthong.

McCagg got the idea for the project, he told me, while he was sitting in a restaurant. "I was listening to a few people talking at a table near me (I'm a chronic eavesdropper) about their least favorite words," he explains. "The requisite 'moist' and 'panties' came up, each met with the collective 'ewwws.'" It occurred to McCagg how passionately people feel about words -- not only in terms of their hatred for certain words (underpants, slacks), but also in terms of their admiration for others. "I started thinking about the words that I loved," McCagg says. "Ubiquitous. Kiosk. And yes [your correspondent's personal preference among the choices], Hornswoggle."

At first, McCagg was going to explore English's lexicographic wonderment via a simple, single bracket. He'd choose his favorite words, and whittle them down from there. "But once I got into it," he says, "I had much more than the usual eight that I fit into a bracket. So I expanded it to have each letter get its own bracket." 

How did McCagg decide which words, out of the hundreds of thousands we've dreamed up, deserve inclusion? "Hornswoggle" is a given, obviously ... but what about the others?

"I read the dictionary," McCagg says. "And picked out about 20-30 great words for each letter." He based those selections on a couple of factors. "For me, it has to be something you've heard. Something that sounds fun. Something that's fun to say. Basically, something, should you ever come across it in day to day life, you stop and think, 'I love that word.'"

From there, though, things got trickier. What actually makes a word great? How do you determine that "zephyr" is more delightful than "zaftig"? How do you decide that "isthmus" is just slightly less awesome than "kerfuffle"?

"The brackets were my opinion only (with some help from my wife)," McCagg says. And "I tend to gravitate towards words that, like I said, you rarely come across. 'Fuck' was the most problematic. It's an awesome word. And it even got its own bracket. But in the end, it felt too everyday to win."

Then again, challenges like that have been part of the point. "It's been amazing the amount of opinions and conversations this has started," McCagg says. "People love words, as it turns out. It's quite heartening. One of the best compliments has been from a teacher who said he thought it would be a great thing for him to assign to his English students."

So why, in the end, "diphthong? Which is also to ask: Why not "hornswoggle"?

"That was a tough call," McCagg concedes. But "that silent 'h' in diphthong made all the difference."

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