“Nifty,” Jeff said as we sat in the lounge waiting for Birmingham-based band Pyrite Parachute to begin its second set.
I thought about it. “That’s a good word.”
“I know. It should be the word of the week.”
“Word of the week?”
“Yeah. I like to designate a word of the week and use it as often as possible in conversation.”
“Oh.” It was low on originality and entirely too easy, but Jeff would be expecting it, and I didn’t have the heart to disappoint him. “That’s a nifty idea.”
“Hey, you’re catching on!”
“So we’re settled on ‘nifty’?”
“Well, let’s think about it. This is a serious decision. I’ll tell you one I’ve fun with before. ‘Hark.’ I’d kind of like to use it again.”
“Yeah, you can use it all the time. You see something or something happens, you just let out with a ‘hark.’”
“Not bad. Any other candidates?”
‘Smock’ was proposed but quickly rejected. ‘Loquacious’ was seriously considered, as was ‘ostentatious.’ Two other interjections, ‘zoinks’ and ‘jinkies’ (familiar to any kid who watched Saturday morning TV in the early 70s or The Cartoon Network in the 90s), were also batted around.
“Pentimento,” I said finally.
Jeff repeated it, crinkling his brow and compressing his mouth into a thin slit that came close to circling his head. “Good word. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s a good word.”
I wouldn’t have known what it meant either if I hadn’t heard it on an old Night Court rerun, but I didn’t tell Jeff that. I did tell him that pentimento refers to the reappearance, in a work of fine art, of a design that had been painted over.
“Oh,” said Jeff, not sounding nearly as impressed by my knowledge of artistic terms as I thought he should’ve been. “Well, that’s nice to know, but I don’t think it should be a word of the week.”
I felt very strongly about pentimento, so I didn’t give in easily, but Jeff’s reasoning finally won out. It would hardly be appropriate, he told me, for the chosen word to be so obscure that we couldn’t find opportunity to use it in conversation. And a person doesn’t really see enough things with reemerging features that had once been obliterated by a new outward appearance to go around talking about pentimento all the time.
Furthermore, to force the word into conversations or to use it out of context shouldn’t even be considered. To do otherwise would perpetrate a foolish facade, which Jeff considered a nifty little bit of alliteration.
A more literate example might be “awful, artificial, and amusing,” which is what James II said when he saw Sir Christopher Wren’s designs for Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Wren, one of the most gifted and learned men of his time, was a professor of astronomy at London and Oxford universities and a founder of the Royal Society, and he was involved in drawing up the plans for rebuilding London after the great fire of 1666. Saint Paul’s is an architectural masterpiece.
But you’d think the king hated it. “Awful, artificial, and amusing,” he said. That was actually high praise. Three hundred and fifty years ago, ‘awful’ meant that something was worthy of reverence and wonder, ‘amusing’ meant the same thing as ‘amazing,’ and if something was artificial, it was designed with skill and ingenuity.
The band was back on stage, and Jeff had turned his attention to the opening riff of “What’s Mine,” leaving me wondering what Wren’s reaction would’ve been if the king had looked at the cathedral design and said “Nifty” instead.