We had a fun discussion this week in our makeup room, the room where we pin up the pages of each issue around the room in order. Like watching chemicals make an image emerge in a darkroom, we gradually see it take shape. We were readying our mouthwatering April color issue for the printer by proofing stories about to go from coffee-splattered manuscripts to glossy paper. Under debate was the word "fossick." If you don't know its meaning, you can deduce it from context: "Because the Hendersons were downsizing from a larger home, Reeves was able to recycle many of their existing furnishings, fossicking out the very best."
If you guessed to "fossick out" means to "ferret out," or to "search out," go to the head of the class. I've noticed the word is used more by Brits than Americans. If you are like me, you've cumulatively spent at least a month of your life so far fossicking about in your purse for keys, specs, and cellphone. The one who used this delightful verb was our senior design editor, Candace Ord Manroe, who wields the mother tongue with uncommon grace. She and I both love beautiful and unusual words, especially those which sound like what they mean, like "evanesce" (to "dissipate like vapor," but then maybe you already knew that).
To me, one of the great pleasures of reading Cormac McCarthy, arguably the best living American novelist, is to learn rare words he uses in a way that never seems strained or too baroque for his sometimes plain, Hemingwayesque prose. Thank you, Mr. McCarthy, for acquainting me with "rachitic" (rickety) , "sprent" (sprinkled over), and "rebozo" (a long scarf, usually Mexican). Who'da thunk it? I knew only of Bebe Rebozo, a banker and cohort of Nixon, who had a whiff of crookedness about him.
Two of our editors had to look up "fossick," prompting one of them to gently suggest that perhaps it should be changed because many readers probably wouldn't know the word either. Ultimately -- like the Corinthians following Paul -- we decided to do as our copy chief, Cynthia Mitchell, who wasn't there at the time, would have us do.
Cynthia is of the mind -- and Candace and I are, too -- that if you use a less-known but smashing word, the readers who know it will feel smart and those who don't will either get it from context or look it up and be glad to have learned something. Once we decided to keep "fossick," the next point of debate was whether it needed to be followed by the word "out." I argued, succesfully, that while "fossick" doesn't have to have "out," it rings better and perhaps makes it easier to understand when followed by "out," in the same way that you use "up" to follow "conjure" and "off" to follow "ticked."
In the dim recesses of my brain, I seem to recall campaigning for the use of "shambolic" here at Traditional Home, another word used more by Brits than Yanks, meaning -- you guessed it -- in a shambles. My desk, at the moment, is shambolic. But maybe that was in another lifetime at another publication (I grow old, I grow old, I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled).