Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ubiety and Other Obscure Words

Like many people, I often find myself sidetracked when looking up a word in a dictionary or encyclopedia. The last time I was thus sidetracked, I stumbled upon "ubiety" -- a word that I consider as amusing as it is obscure. Literally, the word means something like "whereness" (a concept that, perhaps unjustly, strikes me as silly). The more correct and dignified definition is: "the fact or condition of being in a definite place; local relation." That definition, by the way, was taken from the second edition of the Oxford English Reference Dictionary (or "OERD," as I shall henceforth call it).

Well, regardless of the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of "ubiety," it is as good an example as any of the many interesting words that I continue to discover, even after so many years of going to school and reading books. Another example is "adumbrate," which I encountered while forumming. The OERD definition is as follows:
adumbrate 1 indicate faintly. 2 represent in outline. 3 foreshadow, typify. 4 overshadow. [L adumbrare (as AD-, umbrare f. umbra shade)]
One advantage that "adumbrate" has over similar words ("indicate," "hint at," "intimate," "allude to," "portend," etc.) is its rather poetic imagery, which ties its various meanings together nicely. On the other hand, one disadvantage is the fact that, having come across the word so rarely, I'm not comfortable using it in a sentence. Besides, as with other obscure words, "adumbrate" would not be immediately understood by most people. In that sense, using such words -- however interesting, descriptive, or pretty they may be -- defeats the purpose of writing or speaking in the first place. It is all very well to say that people should look things up in a dictionary, or that they should have a richer vocabulary to begin with, but there is something to be said for accessibility and clarity.

Upon reflection, however, I find that the need for accessibility and clarity is outweighed after all. As long as words like "adumbrate" and "ubiety" are used according to their meaning, and not merely because of their obscurity, they add colour and richness to texts and speeches. They also act as gateways to a better understanding of language, history, and culture. Ultimately, in matters of vocabulary as in other matters, it is better to pull everyone up to the same level than to push everyone down.

Anyway, as a little encore, I present "mellifluous" -- a pretty word for a pretty concept:
mellifluous adj. (of a voice or words) pleasing, musical, flowing. [ME f. OF melliflue or LL mellifluus f. mel honey + fluere flow]
By the way, "ubiety," "adumbrate," and "mellifluous" are all of Latin origin. Pardon my bias. I'm sure that there are perfectly nice words of Germanic origin as well (ho ho ho). :o)


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