Sunday, January 10, 2016


As regular readers (who are all kind and smart and good-looking) know, I have a vendetta against certain words. If I were a magazine editor, use of these words would be cause for instant dismissal. The list includes words like yummy, gobble, belly, tummy, and veggie. That's it! You're done! Fired! Don't clean out your desk; we're throwing it all out! GO!

And yet, despite my seething hatred, I caught myself using the word veggie yesterday. The shame!

I saw it coming at the end of my sentence before the first clause was done; as I hit the speed bump comma I knew veggie was approaching, but I was powerless to stop it. I only realized why afterward.

Because vegetable is one of the ugliest words in the English language.

It's true. It's a total train wreck of a noun, much too long and too needlessly complex to express a simple, common variety of objects. My wife nailed it when she said, "They must have been named by someone who hated them."

And these are from Burpee, which is also a crap word.

Merriam-Webster tells us that the word comes from Middle English, via Middle Latin vegetabilis (vegetable), from vegetare (to grow), from vegetus (lively), from vegēre (enliven). Vigor, which is a great word, comes from the same root, as does, believe it or not, wake. It shows the word for vegetable got progressively uglier as the centuries rolled on.

There's no way to make it better. The Britishism veg sounds like the nickname of someone you hate. I used to know a lunch lady who pronounced the whole thing as four syllables---"ve-geh-TAH-bull"---which just prolongs the agony. (Every day the special seemed to be "vegehTAHbull soup.") Any time I hear some nutritionist waxing rhapsodic over fruits and vegetables---including, perhaps, wax beans---the word starts to grate.

Language, like a lot of things that just arise on their own, has its strengths and faults. English is a marvelous collection of words from all over the world, a great borrower, capable of magnificent breadth of feeling, alarming potency, bracing specificity, and dazzling efficiency, but there are a lot of clunkers that pop up.

Usually Latin is a source of great words, but not this one. Why couldn't we have gone with the Germanic Gemüse? The Greek lachanikó? Even the Irish glasraí? Any of them would have been an improvement.

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