Words we liked better before we knew what they meant II

One of my writer friends asked: “Did you see the word of the day for Dictionary.com yesterday?” 

muliebrity \myoo-lee-EB-ri-tee\, noun:
The state of being a woman.

“Now what ass thought of that?” she asked.  “Honestly.”

And it got me thinking: what ass did think of that?  
One of my high school English teachers suggested I study Latin, if I wanted to be a writer, in order to get full precision and resonance from the English language.  I didn’t — and I’ve had reason to bemoan that terrible decision ever since.  While I may never go so far as to actually take a course in Latin, I do have a Latin-English dictionary on my desk and I use it insanely often.  
I also use my Oxford English Dictionary so often I was thrilled to discover the iPhone app — now I have the OED/Thesaurus with me wherever I go.  Woo-hoo!  So often, we use words we think we know when we write.  But I need precision: I need to know for sure that a word means exactly what I think it means. I love to look at the roots of words to determine their origins. Talk about being a nerd.  Still, I believe that kind of precision is essential to careful wordsmiths.

Muliebrity.  The word sounds clunky to our ears — but it’s been in use since at least the 16th century, from the Latin “muliebritas” (mulier = woman).  
Who cares?  What application does such a word have for the modern writer?  Precision.  Characterization, even.  Vocabulary choice is one way we characterize (or, rather, one way in which characters characterize themselves.  Someday I’ll write a blog post: “It’s Called ‘Channeling Your Character,’ Not ‘Making Shit Up.’ “)
Under what circumstances might a character choose muliebrity over womanhood, you ask?   One of my geeky protagonists was a classics major.  Most of his vocabulary, ergo, has Latin roots.  He forces me to look at almost-equivalent words to determine their origins.  If one is Germanic and the other Latinate, the Germanic word goes in the trash. Easy editorial selection.
So, we have muliebrity or womanhood.  The root of “woman, ” my trusty OED tells me, is Old English.  Thus, my classics scholar would choose muliebrity.  His listener might respond with “What the hell does that mean?”  Or the character might consciously stop himself from using it because his listener won’t understand it.  But it would absolutely be his first, instinctive choice.  That’s a character trait.  And it’s uniquely his.  He revealed that part of his personality to me — because I’m simply not smart enough to make up that kind of stuff myself.

About Loranne Brown

Loranne Brown, MFA: Journalist and novelist (The Handless Maiden, Doubleday Canada 1998) teaches Professional Writing at Trinity Western University, Langley, BC. Blog: https://whatisitwithwriting.wordpress.com/ Twitter: @MFAGals @LoranneBrown View all posts by Loranne Brown

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