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”

  • 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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