News & Politics

Loathsome Words You’d Never Say—So Don’t Write Them

Photograph by Flickr user Cory Doctorow.

A good guideline to help decide if you’re overreaching in an otherwise admirable effort to add variety to your writing: Would someone ever say the word in real life? Here are four examples that I don’t think anyone would.

Bespoke. A Britishism that until a few years ago specifically denoted custom-tailored clothes (and seems to have sailed over on the same trendiness ship that carried massive to our shores). Often seen these days in food and home-design writing. Bespoke burgers! Bespoke cocktails! And:

Limn. A literary-criticism word that looks like a lemon-lime typo but means simply to describe or depict. Other observers have amusingly detailed—limned, if you will—New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani’s affection for this bit of arcana (okay, that might be another example) that most people have to look up when they come across it. Fun fact: It’s pronounced lim, but you pronounce the n in limning. Then again, what are the odds you’d ever have call to utter the present participle of limn? (Hat tip to reader @fedward for reminding me of this word.)

Quaff (and quaffable). The only thing that ever got quaffed is mead.

Eschew. Gesundheit!

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.