Words can describe almost every conceivable emotion. Words can provide comfort; words can sting. Words can lift us up; words can cut us down. But in this vast universe of meaning, there is a little patch dedicated to words that describe words. Amusing words, trite words, and even naughty words.
We’ve all been guilty of uttering a platitude. We believe we are expressing something profound and original, but in reality we are only spewing forth the usual cliché’s. “Life is short,” “Don’t give up,” are some common ones. More broadly speaking, ‘platitude’ can describe any trite expression.
Nope, the GRE is not testing the chemistry definition. ‘Bromide’ actually has a second definition: a trite saying meant to offer comfort. Let’s say you are feeling ill. Many people will spew bromides, “Get better,” “I hear it’s going around this year.” While full of the best intentions, none of these expressions do anything to remedy the underlying condition.
This word is no unit of measurement, halfway between a gram and a kilogram. An epigram is a concise and clever expression. The adjective, ‘epigrammatic’ can be used to describe a style that is filled with epigrams. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson jumps to mind.
An apothegm is a wise, pithy saying. Along with maxim and aphorism, I like to think of ‘apothegm’ as the fortune cookie word: it perfectly describes those little sayings we find wrapped inside the cookie (as long as one doesn’t include the ‘in bed’ part).
This last word is an eponym, which means it is derived from a person’s name. The person in this case is the 19th century philanthropist Thomas Bowdler, who had the noble, if not slightly misguided notion, of censoring William Shakespeare’s works so as to make them more palatable for women and children. While such an undertaking may sound downright daft, one must remember that Shakespeare was very fond of the scatological and perverse, his works often reading like exalted potty humor. In honor of removing the objectionable parts, Mr. Bowdler, has the %&# distinction of the word ‘bowdlerize’, which means to censor or—and here is another great %#&@ GRE word—to expurgate.
A phrase, term, or a label carries with it a negative connotation is a pejorative one. A pejorative label is not necessarily an outright insulting one. Indeed, it can be a very neutral word that, over time, has taken on a slightly negative meaning. For instance, ‘permissive’ simply means allowing another person to do something. Yet over the years the word has a negative ring to it. A permissive parent isn’t one who just allows his or her child do something. Our perception is that parent let’s his or her child rule the roost.
Some more obvious pejorative terms that leap to mind come from the career world: garbage man for sanitation worker, ‘shrink’ for psychiatrist. Of course there is escort, which at one time carried the innocuous label of a chaperone. Today, an escort is a….well, I don’t think Mr. Bowdler will let me write that word here.