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Everyone should appreciate the depth of our best words

You can tell a lot about a person based on his or her vocabulary and willingness to use words not found in conventional conversation. While they may make you sound smarter, they are also a clue to how well you would do playing trivia games.

Many of these non-mainstream words just sound cool when you speak them.

Don’t feel ashamed for plugging them into your conversations, as I once did. A truck went down the street this morning hauling a tank labeled “non potable water.” Potable means suitable for drinking, but how many people know that?

Some of the most powerful and best-sounding words in the English language come from the Old Testament. Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, is also known as “Skull Hill.” A Baptist congregation in Spanaway, Wash., took it as its formal name. So did the Missionary Baptist Church in Long Beach, Calif. The hamlet of Golgotha Church, Ga., sustained heavy damage in the Civil War prior to the siege of Atlanta.

Also from the same week in history comes “Gethsemane,” the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. It’s a course word with a jagged beginning and a smooth ending. Parallels abound.

Another gem is “leviathan.” The earliest use of this word appears in the Bible as the name of a monstrous sea creature. It is also the name of a book on political philosophy written in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes. I smile at the fact that this was the name chosen for a massive 19th century train car as well as a roller coaster at modern-day Canada’s Wonderland. Words can be recycled so easily.

The verb “impeller” has a rich visual texture. It refers to the blades within a pump or turbine which push the fluid into another component. Close your eyes as you say it and you can see the word in action.

The Latin language has a great deal to do with our lofty English creations.Audacity is rooted in the Latin word audax, meaning bold. More currently, it is the name of an audio editing application.

How about the word avatar? It was born of Hindu mythology and meant the incarnation of a god. Now we use it when describing our likeness on Facebook.

When the Buffalo Sabres added a new Russian hockey player in 1999, no one in our house could remember his name, let alone pronounce it. Thus, Maxim Afinogenov became known as simply “onomatopoeia” for several weeks. It stuck. It was one way we kept onomatopoeia from being ephemeral, or that is to say, easily forgotten.

Rampart is a durable word most often associated with the walls of a fort.

It’s even laced into our national anthem. It found new life in a classic TV show called “Emergency.”

Shenanigans are playful misdeeds far more forgivable than routine horseplay or goofing around. Chances are that if one has difficulty spelling the word, it’s not in your repertoire. Today people say “playlist” instead of repertoire, but the latter simply sounds so sophisticated.

The above use of four consecutive words beginning with the same letter is called alliteration, a lost art in the literary world. Modern writers are urged to keep this skill in their quiver at all times.

I shocked my daughter one night while watching “Jeopardy!” by knowing the names of the two types of coal. I have not used bituminous nor anthracite in a sentence since then, but surely I will.

Many of these words are misused. A cataclysm does not mean any broad type of disaster or violent upheaval. Its ancient roots specifically refer to a flood or a deluge. Therefore if the North Koreans threaten the United States with the apocalypse, they should understand that ancient word refers to an ultimate revelation. I suspect it will be them, not us, who receive a revelation should they fire the first shot.

Newspaper editors are being told constantly to write shorter stories and use words easily understood by those readers possessing only a fourth grade education. That would be calamitous.

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