How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know


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Reader Rowan Gontier wrote a while ago to ask what was meant by "clever" writing. Rowan quoted a publisher who used the phrase in a derogatory sense, the way a parent might when an annoying fruit of their loins publicly points out an unzipped fly or a white lie. The part of this that puzzled and amused Rowan was that the publisher complaining about "clever" writing listed his objections in arcane words containing many syllables. Was this not in itself "clever"? In response to Rowan and this has taken some time because I was anxious about being called a clever clogs , let me take you back to a Pedant Class that focused on a book called How to Sound Really Clever, by British language enthusiast Hubert van den Bergh.

Publishers who hate clever writing wrote these words on Post-Its and stuck them on their bathroom mirrors so that they could absorb cleverness while shaving. Whether Van den Bergh was using "clever" in a complimentary or insulting sense was never really made clear, but the thought of this poor man having to select just out of all the "clever" words out there gave me heartburn.

How do you choose between exophthalmic and steatopygous? On what basis do you decide whether a penumbra is worthier than a palpitation? Some of his choices are flummoxing. Between abnegation and abrogate is the uneasy inclusion of abrasion. How did that make the cut? I don't think abrasion is a particularly clever word. If I were a pharmacist and someone asked for ointment to put on their abrasion, I'd be tempted to give them another abrasion. The puzzle of this book is not so much whether the words in it are clever, but why it is so important to sound clever.

And does using long words really help? Actually, the problem is the word "clever", which has been so abused, it has lost any recondite value it might once have had. The original meaning of clever is "claw hand", which I presume must have been something akin to a cloven hoof, but at the end of an arm instead of a leg. The owner of this claw was better at grabbing and holding things than his clawless contemporaries, which is how clever evolved from dextrous to, well, clever.

And there it stuck. Everything's clever these days. Children who tie their own shoelaces are clever. Screw-tops for wine bottles are clever. Chefs cleverly use cumin and kumquats to create a clever combination of flavours. Designers put clever polka dots on clever pants for a smart new look. Smart is what Americans say instead of clever. Smart has spread like an infected abrasion.

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Smart cars, smartphones, smart hedgehogs. But he doesn't impress everyone.

Some — such as George Orwell - argue that it's not the length of the words that count, but how you use them. What, then, are the merits of elaborate language and when is it appropriate to use it? How To Sound Really Clever Bloomsbury lists words that give you a "delightful rush" when you discover what they really mean, where they come from, and how to use them correctly.

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How to Sound Clever

It's a sequel to How To Sound Clever and features the "slightly more distinguished, complex cousins" to the words in the first volume. When I interview the author, Hubert van den Bergh, he's quick to point out that some journalists have discarded their bible; many of the words he selected were taken from newspaper articles. The most common inspiration was the Daily Telegraph.

Many words in the book were completely new to me and discovering them was like tasting ice-cream for the very first time. There are certainly times I've felt acedia unaccountable melancholia without knowing what to properly call it. If you feel it constantly, it may be that you're anhedonic — unable to feel pleasure.

After studying this book, you could say that words are your bailiwick — area of authority or skill. Use them too manipulatively, though, and you may be accused of being casuistic — clever, but intellectually dishonest. A cognitive dissonance means having inconsistent beliefs, usually about one's own behaviour. Gay Catholics fall into this category. The opposite of nocturnal?


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  4. Lady Gaga it means an inferior imitator. I've worked for eight years in the voluntary sector and not once did I realise that my profession could be called eleemosynary relating to charity. The immediately evocative hagridden means to be harassed by a negative emotion. I discovered an alliterative synonym for one of my favourite unusual words, saturnine — subfusc, meaning gloomy.

    Verisimilitude the appearance of reality takes me back to my university days, when I used it in as many essays as possible. I probably thought I sounded clever. This is the first time I've used it since. Word number in the book is my favourite for concisely encapsulating a complex figure of speech in just a few letters.

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    Zeugma is when a word applies to two others in different ways; or to two words when it only semantically suits one. An example of the former quotes Alanis Morissette: "You held your breath and the door for me. An example of the latter is "with wailing mouths and hearts" — but don't blame Morissette for this doggerel.

    This book is about more than clever words. Fascinating etymologies are also revealed. So a canard, a false rumour, comes from the French for "duck" because of a remarkable habit they have. When a predator approaches its young, the parent will feign a broken wing, depicting themselves as the easier target.

    This distraction gives the ducklings the opportunity to escape, and the deceptive duck will then take off at the last minute. Meanwhile, pudenda a woman's external organs comes from the Latin pudenda membra — parts to be ashamed of, from pudere to be ashamed. This traces back to a long and unfavourable etymological history relating to women and their bodies.

    How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know
    How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know
    How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know
    How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know
    How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know
    How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know How to Sound Really Clever: 600 Words You Need to Know

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