Me and My New Word

I learned a new word recently.  Sadly, I can’t remember where I discovered it – possibly in Aristoi, by Walter John Williams, but I’m not at all sure.

I like learning new words, which I guess is a good thing for a writer.  The pinnacle of pleasure, when it comes to adding words to one’s vocabulary, is when you experience, think or see something and have no word to describe it, only to discover that such a word exists and precisely and evocatively describes the thing or sensation for which your vocabulary had no answer.  That’s a good feeling, right there.

(Quite often, incidentally, in such a case it’ll turn out there’s a word in German for whatever it is you currently lack the right word for.  It’s easy to have words for all sorts of specific, obscure things – especially states of mind – when you’re allowed, indeed expected, to make new words by gluing together old ones.  Hence Schadenfreude, and Weltschmerz, both glorious words.  This is a very sensible way of organizing a language, if you ask me.)

Slightly less satisfying, but still jolly good, is when you discover a new word for something that you did not know needed a word to describe it, but as soon as you hear the definition you think: “Yes, of course there should be a word for that; and this new word I’ve been given is a perfect fit.”  Such were the circumstances surrounding my acquisition of the word … SKEUOMORPH.

The dictionary that’s always by my desk defines skeuomorph as (brace yourselves):

‘… a decoration or decorative feature in architecture etc, derived from the nature of the material originally used, or the way of working it; a retained but no longer either functional or incidental characteristic of an artefact …’

i.e., in the aspect that pleases me most, a skeuomorph is a deliberately included feature of an object that serves no useful function, but is retained as a ‘call back’ to the manner in which that object, or similar ones, were formerly made.  Wikipedia, naturally, has lots of examples, of which my favourites are:

spokes on car wheels or hubcaps, which aren’t structurally needed but are there as an echo of how wheels used to be made;

fake woodgrain printed on all kinds of stuff that isn’t wood, but is used for things that wood used to be used for;

tiny, non-functional handles on bottles of maple syrup.

It had never occurred to me before, but as soon as it was pointed out, I thought: “Yes! Of course there should be a word for all that stuff.”  And if we’ve got to have a word for it, skeuomorph is an excellent choice.  Sadly, I can’t think of any likely scenario in which I’ll have an excuse to use it in my writing any time soon, but I’ll keep it mentally filed away for future reference.

Two other thoughts this word discovery prompted:

1.  Words derived from Greek, like skeuomorph, look and sound cooler than words derived from Latin.  On average.  That is my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

2.  There should clearly and indisputably be a word for ‘the pleasure of learning a new word that satisfyingly describes something the learner was previously unable to concisely describe’.  In the possibly unlikely event that a word for this sensation does not already exist in German, I believe the people of Germany have a moral duty to the rest of the world to come up with a suitable word as a matter of urgency.

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