In 1618, a crowd of angry Protestants threw two Catholic regents and their secretary from a third-story window at the Castle of Prague. All three survived the 70-foot fall, either because they were caught by angels or because they landed in a dung heap; you can probably guess which side of the conflict told which story. This act, which came to be known as the Second Defenestration of Prague, sparked the Thirty-Years’ War. The word ‘defenestration’ means the act of throwing a person out a window. It comes from the Latin de (from or away) + fenestra (window).
Every now and then somebody on Facebook will ask people about their favorite words. I always like looking at those lists. The word ‘defenestrate’ inevitably appears, and often quite early in the proceedings. I recently asked a friend why she liked the word. She wrote back, “I just love that such a word exists. It’s so remarkably specific.” I agree. It’s funny that such a specific word has made its way into our language. I also think it’s funny that the word didn’t get coined until the Second Defenestration of Prague. The First Defenestration of Prague, in 1419, sparked the Hussite War. At the Second Defenestration, the people of Prague apparently realized that starting wars by throwing people out windows was becoming a thing, and they should probably have a word for it.
I suspect people also like defenestrate because of the ironic distance that’s built right into it. It’s a Latinate, coolly rational word describing a violent act that one associates with hot-headed haste. It seems like a word that was invented to be used by Bertie Wooster.
As my students are no doubt tired of hearing, language conveys not only information but also experience. In defenestrate we have a big gap between the information conveyed (that is to say, the information you would find in a dictionary definition) and the experience depicted. There are words that sound like they were made up by somebody sitting at a desk, and there are words that sound like they grew out of the hurly-burly of human experience (hurly-burly, it occurs to me, belongs to the latter category).
As the Bohemian mob closed in on the poor regents, nobody was saying, “Come on, boys, let’s defenestrate them!” If some rabble-rouser in the streets of Prague had said, “To the Castle! Let’s defenestrate the regents!” the members of the rabble wouldn’t know whether to bring pitchforks or brickbats or ropes. Or a box of Valentine’s candy. No, the word defenestration came into being when some pamphleteer sat at a desk and wrote, “In light of last week’s unfortunate defenestrations…”
For lack of a more precise way of putting it, some words just sound like what they are, and some words don’t. The word mellifluous is mellifluous, and the word lugubrious sounds melancholy and gloomy (and possibly even boo-hooey). If you fling somebody out a window, that verb fling matches the action in a way that defenestrate doesn’t (and never claimed to).
Pulchritude may be the least helpful word in the English language. It’s an ugly word; no beloved wants you praising her pulchritude. And why is pulchritude ugly? Because it sounds like puke. You wouldn’t even have to speak English to know what puke means, because it sounds exactly like what it is.
When people list their least-favorite words, the word moist almost always makes the list. Why? Again, it sounds like what it is. And, significantly, I think, when you pronounce the word moist you make a face that you would make if you were feeling disgust. So moist is a perfect word for describing a slug or some other thing that is both moist and disgusting. But when you apply the word moist to a piece of cake, or to an upper lip or an article of clothing, bad things may start to happen. Because language conveys not just information, but sensory experience.
For my part, I like words that sound like they could have been made up by somebody in a log cabin. Cantankerous, hardscrabble, conniption, skedaddle, flabbergasted, tromp, flummoxed, traipse. One exception, however, is the use of the word polecat for skunk. When it comes to useless words, I put polecatright up there with pulchritude. Skunk comes from the Algonquin squunk. When you say the word, your nose naturally scrunches in exactly the way it scrunches when you smell a skunk. Who ever thought that polecat might be a better name? It’s one of the great mysteries.
The distinction between information and experience helps explain why a thesaurus can get a writer in trouble. The words in a thesaurus are arranged according to lexical content: words that convey similar information are grouped together without comment as to how they behave in the wild. Hopefully I’m stating the obvious here, but if you insist on using a thesaurus, use it only to remind you of words that you already know and fully understand.
My first semester teaching freshman English at Vanderbilt (26 years ago!), a student turned in a paper that included these remarkable sentences: “Young people these days aren’t satisfied with the basics. They want toiletries, and they want it all.” How did that second sentence come to be? Well, as it turned out, my student had started with “They want luxuries,” but went looking in the thesaurus for synonyms and somehow followed a trail from “luxuries” to “toiletries.”
Of course, she wasn’t wrong. We all want toiletries, don’t we?