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Favorite Words of Famous People: A Celebration of Superior Words from Writers, Educators, Scientists, and Humorists

Favorite Words of Famous People: A Celebration of Superior Words from Writers, Educators, Scientists, and Humorists

by Lewis Burke Frumkes

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The favorite words of 250 of the best and brightest contemporary thinkers and creators are collected in this volume that no self-respecting word lover should be without. From Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to authors Yann Martel and Nicholson Baker, the writers, scientists, educators, humorists, and celebrities featured in this book write at length about their


The favorite words of 250 of the best and brightest contemporary thinkers and creators are collected in this volume that no self-respecting word lover should be without. From Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to authors Yann Martel and Nicholson Baker, the writers, scientists, educators, humorists, and celebrities featured in this book write at length about their favorite words and why they are so enamored with them. The entries cover a range of responses, some witty and hilarious, some brilliant and profound, others linguistically clever and poignant. For Mary Higgins Clark it’s memory ("the DNA of a writer"); for Arianna Huffington, it’s trust ("both unutterably sacred and the old banana-skin joke on a cosmic scale"). Other favorite words include the familiar (love, zest, goodness), the unfamiliar (cthonic, steatopygia, irredentist), long words (horripilating) and short (sex), weird words (jerzoid), and refreshingly down-to-earth words (egg). This cornucopia of words is a frequently funny, sometimes eccentric, and often surprisingly intimate and moving look into personality and language.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Pretty darned revealing!"  —Self magazine

"A literate, sometimes moving treatise on the creative and evocative effects of language."  —Orlando Sentinel

"A great gift item for anyone who is fascinated by words."  —Village Voice

"I have been both amused and touched by this book."  —Howard Gardner, author, Frames Of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences

"Lewis Frumkes is a living, breathing barrel of insights."  —Bruce Jay Friedman, author of Stern

"Delightful! Eye-opening! Fun! Thought-provoking! Those are just a few of the adjectives that zipped across my mind as I went through my copy of Favorite Words of Famous People. My advice? Buy! Read! Enjoy!"  —Susan Isaacs, author, As Husbands Go

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Marion Street Press, LLC
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Favorite Words of Famous People

A Celebration of Superior Words from Writers, Educators, Scientist, and Humorists

By Lewis Burke Frumkes

Marion Street Press

Copyright © 2011 Lewis Burke Frumkes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936863-21-1


Floyd Abrams

(New York attorney, partner, Cahill, Gordon & Reindell)

My favorite word is "iguana."

Diane Ackerman

(Best-selling author, A Natural History of the Senses; One Hundred Names for Love)

"Hapax legemonon" is one of my favorites. We are unique if we endure. I also like "sanctity" and "holy." I am not a theist, however, I'm an earth-ecstatic.

Rob Ackerman

(Playwright; Origin of the Species; Tabletop; Disconnect; Volleygirls)


Hanan Al-Shaykh

(Author, The Story of Zahra)

Washwasha. It means "a whisper" in Arabic, and it sounds exactly like a whisper.

"Reminiscent." Whenever I hear it, I visualize two delicate hands trying to pick up things. Maybe this image has to do with the word rammaser in French.

"Frangipani." Whenever I hear it, I smell my childhood. In Beirut, my neighborhood was full of frangipani trees.

"Err." Like an animal sound.

"Fascination." It was my first English word I like to remember after it was repeated over and over in the film Love in the Afternoon since Audrey Hepburn was my idol only because she gave me confidence; to be slim is all right and even complimentary in a society which considers it a drawback. After seeing the film, I kept asking what does the word "fascination" mean, to no avail, until I became seventeen years old. I thought I was superior; I could speak English; I could say "fantastic," "fantasy," "fantasia," and "fascination."

Muhammad Ali

(Three-time World Heavyweight Champion Boxer)

"The Greatest!"

Norman Arnoff

(New York Attorney and columnist for The New York Law Journal)


Justice Benjamin Cardozo in The Nature of the Judicial Process wrote: "Justice is a concept far more subtle and indefinite than mere obedience to a rule. It remains to some extent when all is said and done a synonym of aspiration, a mood of exaltation, a yearning for what is fine or high."

Aristotle, in regard to the meaning of equity and justice as those terms were applicable in arbitration, wrote (and which was posted on the wall of an arbitration hearing room at the New York Stock Exchange): "Equity is justice in that goes beyond the written law, and it is equitable to prefer arbitration to the law court, for the arbitrator keeps equity in view, whereas the judge looks only to the law and the reason why arbitrators were appointed is that equity might prevail."

Justice Benjamin Cardozo again, in an address to a Columbia University Law School graduating class, stated: "How it lies with you to uplift what is low, erase what is false, and redeem what is lost till all the world shall see and seeing understand that union of the scholar's thought, the Knights ardor, the hero's passion and the mystic's yearning which in its best moments of self expression is the spirit of the bar." Justice Cardozo's definition of justice and his understanding of the concept of justice is that it is a term of aspiration which motivates lawyers (especially lawyers), jurors, and judges to do what is morally right and fair when the text of the law is not a clear guide. More often than not the law is not clear.

In thinking about what I do as a lawyer and my role as an "Officer of the Court," I have expressed that "the practice of law is the practice of justice." The terminology and meaning of "Officer of the Court" also represents our aspirations in that the lawyer internalizes the law and takes it with him in contexts outside the courthouse. Justice and a lawyer's ethics should govern the lawyer even outside of court. The term "Officer of the Court" is the broadest reach of the law also giving the concept and term of justice its broadest meaning.

Once in a case in Suffolk County just before a client was going to give up in a case involving fire safety regulations in respect to a hotel where fire safety was the issue and the case seemed to be fixed against my client and his investors, I said: "Law is the conscience of man, and conscience is the eye of God" (i.e., sometimes there is more in pursuing a case than one's client's interest or the interest of the lawyer). Justice and similar concepts motivate those who participate in the legal process to interpret and apply the law to achieve the highest standards of morality and fairness.

Once I was assigned to represent in Federal Court a lookout for drug dealers in the South Bronx. My client's role was to walk the dividing line on the street and warn his coconspirators when the police and DEA came. My client jumped bail and skipped out after the first day of trial, which lasted for a week. For four days I was sitting next to an empty chair. The evidence was thin against my client. In summation to prevent the jury's adverse inference because of my client's flight, I declared to the jury: "My client is not in the courthouse but justice is." Hopefully for every lawyer, justice is always in and outside of the courthouse, whatever the context.

John Ashbery

(Poet, Planisphere; Flow Chart; Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror)

My favorite words are "climate," "meretricious," and "intermittent." I wonder what it all means ...

Margaret Atwood

(Booker Prize-winning author, The Blind Assassin; The Handmaiden's Tale; Cat's Eye; The Robber Bride)

Here are my words:

Thirty years ago, my favorite words were "chthonic" and "igneous." (I was in my Precambrian Shield phase.) Then they became "jungoid," "musilagenous," and "larval" (biology took over). Right now they are "diaphanous" and "lunar." The latter especially, as it combines rock and light, solidity and inaccessibility, with a suggestion of tidal activity, and howling wolves.

Nicholson Baker

(Author, U & I: A True Story; Vox; Checkpoint)

Of abstract nouns containing the letter l, my favorites are "reluctance" and "revulsion."

The "luct" in "reluctance" functions as an oral brake or clutch ("clutch" and "luct" being sonic kin), making the word seem politely hesitant, tactful, circumspect — willing to let the hired tongue have its fun before completing its meaning.

My uncle tried to teach me how to say "revulsion" properly when I was five: under his tutelage the second syllable became a kind of Shakespearean dry heave. The word is full of exuberant, l-raising relish and revelry.

The first word I liked was "broom."

Russell Baker

(Former PBS host, Masterpiece Theatre; former columnist, The New York Times)

"Melancholy" is one of my favorite words, but if proper nouns may be considered, no word satisfies me more utterly than "Pushtunistan." Can you bear a fardel? The funniest word in English is "fardel," the most pompous is "obloquy," the most unnecessary is "congeries," and the hardest to pronounce without sounding like a twit is "prescient."

David Baldacci

(Author, Absolute Power; Total Control; One Summer)

I know that some people say that I use a lot of the same verbs ... My verbs tend to be very active like "plunged" or "hurtled" or words like that. I like the fast pace and the action, but with Total Control I tried to delve more into the emotional side, and some of the words there are more tender words. You're trying to describe how a character is actually feeling.

I guess I'm a fan of most of the words that I employ in my books. I can't say that I have any particular favorites. It's hard just working over and over trying to say something the right way, for exactly what you're trying to say at that moment in time. And you could probably always go back and second-guess yourself about it. But at some point you just have to say at this point in my life and this point in time this is the best I can do with this, and then you have to move on. With a word, it's kind of an endless choice. Sometimes you hit it and sometimes you don't.

Dave Barry

(Syndicated columnist, humorist)

I am very partial to "weasel." It's hard to imagine a thought that wouldn't be improved by the addition of a "weasel." For example:

Weak: "Spiro Agnew was vice president from 1969 through 1973."

Better: "Spiro Agnew was vice president from 1969 through 1973. What a weasel." Another excellent word is qua because most people (me, for example) have no idea what it means. So qua tends to lend an air of unchallengeable authority to a statement.

Weak: "The Mets suck."

Better: "The Mets qua Mets suck."

And of course you can't go wrong with "sputum."

John Barth

(National Book Award-winning author, Chimera; The Sot-Weed Factor; Once Upon a Time)

Pet Words

I can no more name a favorite word than choose a favorite food: so many, and of such differing varieties of appeal, that to rank them is to compare ... apples and oranges. All the same, three pet categories, if not pet words, come to mind:

• Certain Latinate adjectives of decidedly poetical sound but (in my working vocabulary, at least) insufficiently certain sense for me to deploy them comfortably. Lambent. Plangent. Crepuscular. I have contrived to publish upwards of three thousand narrative pages without, I think, ever before now describing anything in God's creation or mine as either lambent, plangent, or crepuscular. To my ear such hyper-evocotives are — how to put it? Too lambent, perhaps. Too plangent. Too crepuscular.

• Certain adverbs and prepositions of a particularly rough-poetic air, the virtual contrary of Category One. Akimbo. Athwart. Doggo. What a doughty, vintage-English way to position one's arms; to set a plank (there's a handsome word, too); to simply sprawl (and there's another).

• Certain Greek imports with clustered consonants and/or diphthongs (e.g., diphthong) tantalizing to the Anglophonic tongue and ear. Rhythms, for starters, and mnemonic, chthonic, and phthisis, once you're in the spirit of it; also that standby from our childhood chemistry sets, phenolphtha-lein — especially the busy stretch between the o and the a of that reagent. But it's a homely native English fraction that holds my unofficial Guinness record for the longest unbroken string of consonantal spits and sputters. Pronounce carefully the simple word sixths, and you'll hear the vexed-pussycat sound of no fewer than four unvowelled hisses: the k plus s of x, the thornish th, and the sign-off sibilant.

Sixths: yes.

Kenneth Battelle

(World-renowned hairdresser, Kenneth of Kenneth's Salon)

I think the three-letter words that end in ex — "hex," "Mex," "rex," "sex," "Tex," "vex" — are amazing as they conjure so much of a sense of power and are so descriptive.

I love "curmudgeon," as I would like to be one. Maybe I am. And I love "dichotomy," as I find the world to be just one big one.

Julie Baumgold

(Author, Creatures of Habit; The Diamond)

"Night," because the night forgives, it keeps secrets, cloaks the bad things of the day, hides ugliness, because you feel you can pass through it invisibly, because the people of the night see more in the shield of darkness. Almost any word sounds better to me with "night" in front of or behind it and the best word of all is "tonight." As Dracula said, "Listen to them — the children of the night. What sweet music they make."

William Baumol

(Economist, NYU)

My favorite words are "chutzpah," "ambiguity," and "chimera." The word "chutzpah," which can't even be spelled properly, much less translated fully, from the Yiddish is perhaps primus inter pares among the trove of Yiddish words rich in nuance and content. Meaning a compound of audacity and sheer gall, all carried out with panache, competence, and a touch of humor, there seems to be no substitute in any other language.

"Ambiguity" is one of my favorites because I consider it to be the crucial attribute of any work of art that has any prospect of enduring. Good examples are the Bach cantatas, which, after all, were prepared as pieces of Lutheran propaganda. If their content were unambiguous, would they still attract the many Oriental musicians who perform them so superbly, and to whom their Lutheran origins can mean very little?

"Chimera" recommends itself to me because I just like the sound and like the concept. Does it need more justification than that?

Orson Bean

(Actor, Desperate Housewives; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; humorist, author)

"Belly button" is the word.

I love it because it makes me laugh and because it collects belly button "lint," for which there is no known use. We need more totally useless things in life.

Ira Berkow

(Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter and columnist, The New York Times)

My offering for favorite word is "bamboozle." The sound of the word gives instant delight, and brings a smile to one's face, unless of course you yourself have been bamboozled, or the target of a bamboozle — that is, tricked, cheated, or conned. I looked up the derivation and the dictionary says "obscure origins," which adds to the joy. It obviously was invented because we needed such a juicy word. The happy placing of the pair of b's, the twin o's, the earthy m, the lurking I, and the zippy z provide a word of nonpareil pronunciation. You can say it with the long boo — "bamboooozle" — or with a kind of Yiddish accent, giving the oo's a softer, tighter, bosomy sound.

To be sure, there are numerous words in our rich mother tongue that are a pleasure to let roll from our lips. But when asked to select my favorite word, it was "bamboozle" that first popped into mind. Why, I don't know. I rarely use the word, so it must simply have been lying in wait in my subconscious to spring up at this very moment. And since I believe it is usually sound advice to stick to initial instincts, I do so now with this luscious and loony word.

Anne Bernays

(Author, Trophy House; Professor Romeo)

Nice of you to ask me about my favorite words. Here they are, four of them.

"Eighty-seven." In my family this is a generic number meaning "many." As in "When I went to get my driver's license renewed, there were eighty-seven people waiting in line in front of me." Or "This is the eighty-seventh time this week I've asked you to clean up the mess in your room." Justin claims that it probably derives from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address — "Fourscore and seven years ago ..." — but I'm doubtful. In any case, eighty-seven is an all-purpose number, making a clear statement. It's very useful.

My other three words — "fat," "old," "conceited" — belong together and are examples of the kind of straight language I admire and mourn the loss of. All are routinely euphemized, as in "obese," "overweight," "husky," "aging," "elderly," and some form of (yuck) "senior citizen," "narcissistic," "entitled," "self-absorbed." Why can't we call things by their true names?

Sven Birkerts

(Essayist, author, The Gutenberg Elegies)

Favorite words ... I've been going about for days now tilting my head and blinking as the candidates have it out in the cranial arena, and I've decided that it's too hard to choose from an unlimited field. Why not just stab the dictionary with a knife like the Dadaists did? But no, the better solution is to impose a constraint. Mine? I will select, somewhat at random, a small crop of beauts from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. Because this novel, about the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin — drunkard, consul — once intoxicated me as no cruder distillation has ever managed. I'm not sure I could ever explain the process, the chemical transaction, but I will say that Lowry, even more than Joyce or Woolf, infected me with his obvious love for distinct words — for their look, their sound, their suggestiveness, as well as for the way they jostle together in a line of print, seducing the eye-beam, playing crack-the-whip down in the recesses of the ear. An homage, then, a sortes Lowriae:

plangent, sculpturings, lacquered, naphtha, waxplants, spoliation, mescal, thaumaturgy, coquelicot, casuistry, strychnine, whiskerando, Pleiades, anis, jai-alai, abbatoir, plantains, dolorous, bougainvillea, chamois, thrumming, horripilating, multitudinously, exacerbated, cobalt, hippodrome, rajah, toothmug, antipodes, gesticulations, barranca, parapet, mirador, runcible, monarchical, immedicable, pariah, convulvulus, pyramidal, cashiered, dementia, pulque, sulfurously, bedraggedly, honeymoon, calvados, digestif, mestizo, Palladium, mosque, bobolink, jocosely, confetti, assuaged, orchestras, elastic, borracho, confederate, pocketing, ventilated, pandemonium.


Excerpted from Favorite Words of Famous People by Lewis Burke Frumkes. Copyright © 2011 Lewis Burke Frumkes. Excerpted by permission of Marion Street Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lewis Burke Frumkes hosts a weekly radio show on WPAT-AM and is the author of seven books, including How to Raise Your I.Q. by Eating Gifted Children, The Logophile’s Orgy, Manhattan Cocktail, and Metapunctuation. His work has appeared in Harper's, Punch, and the New York Times. He lives in New York City.

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