Writer's moments

Words, Words, Words

I am a word freak, a language maven, a…a vocabularist. Okay, so maybe vocabularist isn’t actually a real word, but it should be because it describes me to a T. Last week, my pal/fellow editor/writer, Mae, came up to the lake to spend part of my writing week with me. We wrote and talked and read and talked and ate and talked and drank wine and talked and…well, you get the picture.

One thing Mae and I share is a love of words. We are both fascinated with language and how we use it, especially unusual or quirky terms. Yesterday, she sent me this note referencing something she’d read in political pundit Charles Krauthammer’s column.

Krauthammer used this sentence in one of his columns, and I knew you’d love the words… He was referencing the fact that Romney has one more debate, but he missed an opportunity at the last one.  I could have translated the term, but wouldn’t have gotten what the underlying meaning was. Esprit d’escalier (“wit of the staircase”) is the French term for the devastating riposte that one should have given at dinner, but comes up with only on the way out, at the bottom of the staircase.

Esprit d’escalier—wow! What a great term for coming up with the right crushing reply just a little too late. And it has the added bonus of being French, which is always a win for me. Incorporating French into my everyday usage is fun and helps me remember enough of the language that I won’t embarrass myself next time I go to Paris (that is happening!).  

Mon Amie is one my favorite endearments for friends and I often sign emails to close friends, Bises, which is the word for the French way of kissing each cheek in greeting. C’est la vie, c’est la guerre, c’est la pomme de terre is one of Son’s and my favorites. Translated literally, it’s “that’s life, that’s war, that’s a potato” but it means “That’s the way it goes” or “Dems de breaks,” and sometimes replaces merde (shit) when a disgusted French person is trying to be polite.  I use Je ne sais quoi (I don’t know) and je t’aime (I love you) often. Husband and Son simply grin at each other. They know French is part of life with Nan, and that it’s not pretension on my part, but rather just a love of the language. Using French makes me happy.

As a writer and an editor, I have a passion for learning new words and using them. I got it from my mom, who also loved language and insisted we choose our words well. She spent serious time increasing our vocabularies with word games like Scrabble, Boggle, and Probe and crossword puzzles. To this day, family gatherings always include word games. Our latest fave is Apples to Apples—très fun! I’m a whiz at spelling, and if someone asks me what a word means, I can generally come up with the correct definition without running to a dictionary. My grasp of language and its appropriate use is part of why I’m a terrific copyeditor (I have clients who’ll testify, honest!). I adore discovering new words and finding ways to use them in my writing.

So talk to me—tell me your favorite foreign phrases—the ones that bring you joy when you have the opportunity to include them in a conversation. Or share a great English word that makes you gleeful when you have the chance to use it.




  • Skye

    I don’t use foreign words and phrases particularly, partly because I took German in school and it isn’t particularly mellifluous. But one of my favorite words is lucid, which I’m using a ton right now because changes in my meds have made me more lucid. So I’ve been saying it a lot. Which makes me smile.

    But I love the French phrases you put up there (…that’s a potato — just killed me!). Very nice.

  • Robena Grant

    I have a few Yiddish phrases that my F-I-L used to use and they always crack me up but I don’t know how to spell them.

    I also love the music of the French language. Remember in the film French Kiss, how the hero was a scruffy looking Frenchman who looked like he hadn’t bathed in two weeks and yet when he spoke French you felt yourself go weak at the knees? ; ) Oh, you didn’t? Well, I did.

    My fave is savoir-faire, which kind of means saying the right thing at the right time and with a certain grace.

    • Nan

      French Kiss is one my go-to movies when I need to have my spirits lifted, Roben. Even though Kevin Klein isn’t French, he sure convinced me–his accent was right on and his French was the go-weak-in-the-knees kind for sure. He had true savoir-faire.

      Oy! I’d love to hear your Yiddish. Thanks for coming by.

  • Liz Flaherty

    I got to use “particularities” the other day. I was SO impressed with myself. Like all the other writer people, I like words but use them much more in writing than speaking–I stumble too much when I talk.

    Great post, Nan.

    • Nan

      Great word, Liz! I know–I use good words more in writing than in speaking, but I’m trying to overcome that. Someone once told me I was “haughty” because I used my extensive vocabulary around her. I found that rather ironic since “haughty” is a pretty darn good word. Unless she meant “hottie” and I completely misunderstood…hmmmm…