The Quest for the Best Word Ever

By Mark Nichol

Last year, an advertising executive named Ted McCagg embarked on a whimsical endeavor: Using a bracketing schematic like that employed to record the outcome of athletic tournaments — in which, in each iteration, the number of selections displayed is reduced by half according to some criterion, until only one choice remains — McCagg subjectively selected the best word ever.

McCagg’s Final Four?: diphthong (two vowel sounds in one syllable), gherkin (a type of cucumber, or the vine from which it grows) hornswoggle (a hoax, or to hoax), and kerfuffle (a disturbance).

Is there any practical use for this exercise? I see it as an entertaining vocabulary-building activity: Brainstorm any number of interesting words, whether you know their meaning or not. Subject them to match-ups, two words at a time, and select the one you favor on whatever merits — definition, euphony, or some ineffable quality (I like euphony and ineffable). Repeat until you have a winner, then resolve to learn the word’s meaning if you don’t know it already, and use it in your writing.

There are no losers in this game: The runner-up simply takes its place in line, followed by the favored term in the duel between the no. 3 and no. 4 seeds and then by the runner-up in that contest. Try to use each new front-runner as it is identified.

Organize a tournament with a circle of friends (in real life or online), a writing group, or a class. Make submissions anonymous, match them up randomly, and have the participants vote on their favorite word in each pair, which then advances to a run-off with another favored word.

Perhaps this activity seems silly. After all, maybe the writing you’re paid for is about finance or technology, or you produce marketing content. However, I doubt you work in a kerfuffle-free milieu, and hornswoggling may occur betimes (I like milieu and betimes), but you can apply your best-word-ever efforts to specific jargon and vocabulary.

Oh, and McCagg’s best word ever? Diphthong.

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31 Responses to “The Quest for the Best Word Ever”

  • thebluebird11

    @Mark: How is “diphthong” 2 vowel sounds in 1 syllable? I’m pretty sure it’s a 2-syllable word. Of interest to me is that 4-consonant obstacle course in the middle there. I haven’t done any serious thinking on it, but there is only one other word I can think of, off the top of my head, that has that same combo: phenolphthalein. However, in that word, the second “ph” is silent.
    I think playing with words is fun. Words can definitely influence your emotions. When I hear “kerfuffle” (a word with which I’m familiar), I imagine a pillow fight, with people jumping up and down and feathers flying everywhere! And once I was very lucky and was able to play “gherkin” in Scrabble 🙂

  • Stephen

    thebluebird11> “diphthong” is a word that means “2 vowel sounds in 1 syllable”, not a word that contains 2 vowel sounds in 1 syllable.

  • John

    Cacophony has to be one of the best words in the English language. It pops out of the mouth in way that suggests the harsh noise that it is meant to symbolize. I like the sound of it.

  • Helen

    How intriguing that an American (I am assuming Ted Mcagg to be American) chooses “diphthong” as his favourite word, when the printed diphthong (or ligature) has virtually disappeared from American English although it remains, I am delighted to say, in British English (yes, I am British!). We may separate the letters nowadays, or in print may still use the ligature, in such words as archæology, hæmorrhoid, œstrus, and œsophagus. All words which I like, but which in American English I believe are spelled archeology, hemorrhoid, estrus and esophagus.

    As an aside, this has unintended consequences where the diphthong begins the word, as I discovered years ago as a Zoology student, since it moves words in an index from one location (the ‘O’s) to another (the ‘E’s)!

  • John

    I see the confusion about the definition of diphthong. If you voiced both vowels in a diphthong, it would sound like two syllables. I think the technical definition is that the tongue moves during the pronunciation of the diphthong, but native speakers hear it as one sound.

  • Tricia

    Mark, I too love the word ineffable! I originally thought that diphthong was a rather colorless choice for the best word ever, and now that I see the cacophony that has ensued here over it, I’m even more convinced. (Just kidding about the cacophany–couldn’t resist–and absolutely no offense to the other posters.) We word-lovers are quite an eclectic crowd, after all! But I’m not kidding about my opinion of “diphthong” as being lackluster compared to some of the others in the running, and others that were not apparently in the running at all. Just my two cents, of course.

  • Paula

    I suppose we could debate this until the proverbial cows crest yon rise, but surely “flibbertigibbet” and “flabbergasted” – two of the finest ‘f’ words *ever* – deserve consideration! Of those listed, however, ‘kerfuffle’ is my odds-on favorite.

  • thebluebird11

    @Stephen: <> …I am such a birdbrain! You know, looking back now, I realize that Mark put the DEFINITION, not the DESCRIPTION, of each word in parentheses after it. If diphthong had been mentioned later, I probably would have recognized the parenthetical insert for what it was. But it was late and I was tired…etc.
    And personally I will add the word “scintillating” to the list of nice words. “Coruscating” means similar but doesn’t sound half as nice. I am partial to quagga…OK I’d better stop before my posts get, you know, too long. 😉

  • Kelly

    I really like using words that display my heritage (Australian). Fossick, which confuses Word and Chrome, is one of my favourites. I love a good fossick. It’s like treasure hunting and can apply to anything.

    I also love enveigle (more normally spelled: inveigle). Just sounds so involved. Feels like it means.

  • Chihuahua Zero

    I would’ve went with “kerfuffle”. There’s something whimsical about that word. Kerfuffle! They’re making a kerfuffle!

  • Lee Capraro

    I’ve always liked saying “epiphany.” I like saying it and using it, and I like what it means.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @thebluebird11:
    According to the GUINESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS, et cetera, this holds the record for the largest number of consecutive consonants in a word in the English language: the compound word “latchstring”.
    This has six consonants in a row.

    It is true that this is an antique word from Colonial times and the early history of the United States. A latchstring was a string that was found in the cheap and primitive door locks of the time. When I person pulled on the string, the door opened.
    I can only guess that this was a door lock that would keep out bears, bobcats, badgers, cougars, coyotes, foxes, javelinas, mountain lions, possums, sables, skunks, wildcats, wild hogs, wolverines, wolves, etc., especially at night. Then if some of the men were returning late from a hunting trip, they could pull on the string and get back into the house or log cabin.
    What about raccoons? They have front paws that are almost like hands, and could a raccoon learn how to pull on the string? Then raid the kitchen, or raccoons with rabies could bite people in their sleep.

    The GUINNESS BOOK also says that there is a French word with six vowels in a row! This occurs in the name of a mountain in Morocco, which was under French domination for more than a century. That name was probably written in Arabic to begin with, but Arabic uses a completely different alphabet. Hence, when the name was transliterated into French, it ended up with six vowels in a row.

    I have loved reading about world records, and especially since my Mother was an English teacher, my reading the chapter on languages and words came early in my browsing through the book.
    (I do not really care about reading about records like “Who ate the largest number of live worms in 60 seconds?” Yuck!)
    (Or reading about the Frenchman who took a whole bicycle and filed it down to shavings. He also boiled the tires and the tubes, and he ATE the whole thing! His project took about two years to do.)

    Dale

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, the best word that there is – and I believe that will ever be:
    RADAR.

    In a radar system, radio waves are transmitted out in a certain direction from a directional antenna. When those radio wave strick a large surface (especially a metal one) such as an airplane, a ship, or the White Cliffs of Dover, some of them reflect back in the same direction, but in the opposite way. Those reflections are picked up by the radar receiver.
    First of all, something “out there” has been detected. Also, by using the time delay and the speed of light, the range (distance) can be easily calculated. So there is the aspect of radio waves going out, and then returning in exactly the opposite direction.

    Radar is a palindromic word, too. You can read it from left-to-right or right-to-left, and it says the same thing, just like “Anna” or “Able was I ere I saw Elba” (Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812) – a palindromic sentence. “A dog, a panic in a pagoda.” “Step on no pets.”
    “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!”
    “Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel’ ”
    (Here, an old form of the word “dwell” is used.)

    So, RADAR orignated as an acronym, but it quickly became a common noun. Its meaning: RAdio Detection And Ranging.

    Sonar is not palindromic, but SONAR meant “SOund NAvigation and Ranging”. Also, the best sonars now do not transmit any sounds, but rather, they just sit quitely underwater and listen, either on a submarine or suspended from a surface ship.

    Three cheers for radar! Not only is it vital for warfare, but it is just as important in civilian Air Traffic Control (ATC).

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    For words that just have a curious sound, how about “Picadilly” ?

    There is also a kind of pickled relish called “picklelilly”, or something like that.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @thebluebird11:

    Concerning “scintillating”: “Scintillation” is a technical word in the physics of radioactivity.

  • thebluebird11

    @DAW: Also used for scintillating conversationalists…and presumably sequined fabrics, for evening gowns and so forth.

  • Gary R.

    Interesting sentence: “…between the no. 3 and no. 4 seeds….” In college I learned that the word is “cedes” as they relate to conceding position on the chart (okay, I was a recreation major and not an English major). It is done to avoid two top contenders meeting in the early rounds. I can see how both words work, but I always use cedes when writing.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Scintillation is a kind of sparkling.

    Back during the 1960s, there were an American comic strip and and American TV comedy (“Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In”) that had two different oddball families in them as occasional characters:
    The “Farkle” family and the “Plenty” family. These two families were both very similar to hillbillies, if not actual hillbilles.
    I can remember the names of three of the characters:
    Two women named “Sparkle Farkle” and “Sparkle Plenty”, and a man named “B.O. Plenty”. (Just think of what “B.O.” stands for in common speech!) Naturally, B.O. Plenty looked like he had not had a bath in six months!

    Cheers, D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @thebluebird11:
    I bet that you have scintillating eyes.

    I have a feeling that I would not like to have scintillating teeth. If I went around at night and I smiled, that would make me look like a vampire!

    Also, “luminous eyes” sounds like someting from a horror movie.
    We would need to have Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in it, and maybe Vincent Price, too. How can American companies advertise cosmetics that will supposedly give women luminous eyes?
    D.A.W.

  • Widdershins

    What a wonderful idea. I feel a blog post coming on!

  • Sophie Ross

    Discombobulate. Surely the best word ever?

  • Roberta B.

    @DAW………..and the funny thing about the Farkle Family wasn’t just their name, but that all of the children looked like their “trusted friend and neighbor, Ferd Burfull.” Too funny!

  • Dan Erickson

    “phth” I’m quite sure you were referring to these four letters creating one syllable as the whole word is two syllables. But we have many words that have a combination of letters creating one syllable. I don’t follow.

  • Dan Erickson

    Oh, we were speaking of the “meaning of the word. My bad. Rather than finding the “perfect” word, I like to find perfect combinations of words. I’m a songwriter and poet and it’s fun and challenging to create perfect combos.

  • thebluebird11

    @DanErickson: I forgive you, I kind of made the same mistake myself LOL So nice to have someone join me on Planet Oblivion!

  • Azahara

    @Dale A. Wood:

    Another compound with six consecutive consonants is ‘catchphrase’.

  • venqax

    @thebluebird11
    Of interest to me is that 4-consonant obstacle course in the middle there. I haven’t done any serious thinking on it, but there is only one other word I can think of, off the top of my head, that has that same combo: phenolphthalein.

    ophthallmology

  • venqax

    Sorry for the doublled first l. Finger twitched. No edit.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Thank you to several of the above respondants:

    1. I didn’t remember anything about the Farkle Family except for their funny name and the funnier “Sparkle Farkle”. “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In” was one of my father’s favorite TV shows, even though he his usually a rather solemn soul. I was too young to understand most of that show back then.
    2. Thank you for “catchphrase”. It is interesting that this was not mentioned, but “latchstring” was. It is very likely that the former word is generally spelled as “catch phrase” or “catch-phrase”.
    What was the catch phrase of Maxwell Smart, Agent 86? “Sorry about that, Chief,” though he had others, too.
    What was the catch-phrase of The Lone Ranger? “Hi-yo, Silver!”

  • Dale A. Wood

    The comic strip with the “Plenty” family in it was DICK TRACY.
    That was the one that had “B.O. Plenty” in it, but I cannot remember any of the other names.
    I used to read DICK TRACY back in the years before Apollo 11, when a character named “Diet Smith” in that strip invented a “magnetic space car”, and he and a couple of companions visited the Moon first. They found a deep canyon near the edge of the Moon (hence invisible to astronomers) that was filled with an atmosphere. That was inhabited by a population of intelligent Moon people who were just like human beings, but they had antennae on their heads.

    Diet Smith brought back and adventurous young woman with him to the Earth, and she was simply called “Moon Maid”. One great thing about Moon Maid was that she always wore hot pants and thigh-high black boots. That was just right for catching the attention of young fellows like me!

  • Dale A. Wood

    The best word ever is still “radar” because it is palindromic and it describes a system in which radio waves go outward and back along the same path.

    Other nice palindromic words include { civic, kayak, madam, noon, Otto, releveler, reviver, rotator, toot, wow }.

    It is true that “Releveler” is not an independent word with a genuine meaning. This word is the trademark for a kind of a motorized garden toll that used to be for sale.

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