For starters, remember that Manhattan is my urban village and the reason a friend who lives in South Carolina recently said to me when I told her this story, ”It wouldn’t surprise me if you said you had run into Queen Elizabeth II in Bloomingdales on Thursday.” But seriously, a few weeks ago I encountered a remarkable gentleman (and I use that noun as an accurate observation, not simply a conversational platitude.) The encounter taught me two things well worth remembering.
The first one. On the day of the anonymous encounter, I did not recognize the gentleman although he is a person with a considerable public profile. But that was all to the good. It reminded me in a forceful way that impressive people’s power to impress you is at its best when it comes from the simple experience of their presence, or their aura. and not from their resume. (That in turn echoes the brilliant writer David Brooks’ distinction between resume virtues and eulogy virtues described in his book The Road to Character.) But back to the encounter. The gentleman and I had a lighthearted exchange and went our separate ways, chuckling. When the lightbulb went off hours later, I thought to Google the name that had dawned on me might identify the “gentleman.’ It did.
As I read the Google results, I learned that the until-then-unnamed “gentleman” was, among a long list of accomplishments and achievements, a “Polyglot.”
That led to the second thing I learned that day, as I thought, “He’s a what?” There are a number of little used or seldom encountered words that sound vaguely uncomplimentary. Polyglot is definitely one of them. It’s the kind of word that when used in relation to someone you are inclined to admire, you want to say, “He’s a what?” At that point you may (or may not) be rescued by a couple of commas or parentheses. In this case, the designation “polyglot” was followed by the explanation that the “gentleman” has mastered a remarkable number of foreign languages. A polyglot’s “parenthetical” reads like this: XXXX is a polyglot (who speaks 7 foreign languages). So I moved the word from the possibly minus column to the unquestionably plus one. And I smiled as I remembered how many times I had reminded clients of my marketing strategies practice that forming, establishing and repeating their “parenthetical” is at the very heart of their success in branding themselves, their products or their company.
It’s very helpful to make sure you take possession of a designation. For example, “Hymini, the world’s first handheld wind and sun powered generator, can power all your five volt devices.” Or: “Your Finland visit is likely to include Rovanemi, the town designed by Alvar Aalto and postal address for Santa Claus, in the Arctic Circle.”
But, back to the encounter with a thoroughly memorable polyglot. The second thing I learned the day I encountered him is that little used and rarely recognized words depend on their accompanying parenthetical every bit as much as a respected brand of floor coverings or decorative hardware or fine crystal collectibles.
So, if in the future you hear that Tom, Dick or Harry runs an eponymous retail operation don’t fear that the trio are running a family enterprise into the ground. With their parenthetical the trio come out as “Tom, Dick and Harry, (sons of the legendary retailer Selfridge, for example) are reinventing the eponymous London store into a 21st Century success story.
To save you puzzlement and time, here are a few “red flag” words you can know from the start are good news, not bad, when applied to a person you meet or read about. If moved to think he’s/she’s a what?, it could very easily have a happy ending and not a disenchantment. Pigney is a term of endearment for a girl that evolved from the Saxon word for girl. Pernoctation in ecclesiastical usage is a night vigil of prayer and meditation. (But just in case, watch out for an adoption of the term to suggest spending the night together, often not specifically for joint prayer). Ustulate or scorched, used as a $20 replacement for sunburned. An atoraxic, you can be happy to know does not (presumably) suffer from an eating disorder but is that happy human who is unalterably calm and without stress. Plenipotentiary got to be that upon appointment to a position from ambassador to a delegate so you don’t have to wonder if he does magic tricks like a prestidigitator might be likely to perform.
You scrabble players will have many more examples of recently discovered and/or little known words. And I hope you marketers will continue to gain an increasing understanding of the power of the parenthetical. But I doubt that any of you will have the very great pleasure I had this summer in encountering a polyglot whom I know also to be a champion of compassion.