September 15, 2012 by IPAlchemist
You know how sometimes you think of something, some people think it is a bit odd, and then things that you see around you reflect the idea? And then something else feeds into it as well…?
Well, I have recently been involved in interviewing for a new trainee patent attorney. It’s not an easy thing to spot talent for this job (or vocation as I consider it) in a science or engineering graduate, for whom writing and language skills have probably not been a regular part of their life for some time.
Anyway, I was thinking how I might approach this, and I decided to ask the candidates their favourite word – what is it, why, and what does it mean? (Mine by the way is squaloid [see more below], but preantepenultimate scores highly too). Some of my colleagues laughed at this (literally), while some thought it was rather a good idea. I found it very helpful in the interview process, although it was clear that some of the candidates subscribed to the “this is very odd” school of thought on the issue.
Anyway, with my favourite words in my mind, @OxfordWords shortly after tweeted one of its words for the day – “porcine” (appertaining to pig). So I thought of my word, squaloid (which means appertaining to shark) and tweeted it back to them. A few tweets later and suddenly I am deeply involved in twitter conversation with @Hirst_Shark, Damien Hirst’s shark sculpture. No, really.
Then, in a further coincidence, on Friday, by a circuitous Twitter route, while on the bus into work, I came across an article online in The Atlantic (not a publication I had previously come across) about a gentleman called Ted McCagg (not a gentleman I had come across before either, but his blog Questionable Skills is here) who, by a heroic effort of comparing pairs of words and choosing the “best”, has found the Best Word. Ever. And…
The Best Word is “diphthong”. A jolly good word, I am sure you will agree. But one that lands us in another dilemma straight away. Do you pronounce the “ph” as “f” or as “p”? And, in the third serendipitous link, I had just a few days before been reading on the OUP blog about that very issue, in a lovely piece that you can read here by Anatoly Liberman. This article makes clear that the “p” pronunciation is “substandard”. But very common. So common that some people go so far as to spell it without the first “h”. (And Mr McCagg may have undone the good work he did by bringing “diphthong” to the attention of the world by being quoted saying “that silent ‘h’ in diphthong made all the difference.” WHAT SILENT “H”?)
The OUP blog also taught me the wonderful word “monophthong”. If you can slip that into a dinner party conversation you are doing very well. The author complains that his spellchecker does not recognise the word. Spellcheckers don’t recognise “squaloid” either, and I am fighting a battle in this post, as I always do with the word, having to go back and amend where computer has cheerfully substituted “squalid”. Ho hum.
I will take some time to decide whether “diphthong” will over time replace “squaloid” as my favourite word. It will have some work to do. The reason I like it is because I needed it, and had to go and find it – I wanted to refer to the shark-like quality of a patent attorney poker player, and “sharky” doesn’t really cut it. (Just as, I have discovered, when one wishes to refer to the monastic quality of something, “monky” doesn’t really do either. In fact people seem to think it rather funny.) So whereas most words I learnt, and then found ways to use, “squaloid” I needed, and had to go and find. So I have a completely different relationship with it, compared with how I feel about the rest of my vocabulary.
Do feel free to contribute your own favourite words. If you want some suggestions to get you thinking in the right direction, may I suggest you visit Questionable Skills.
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