One of my favorite books about language, Bill Bryson's Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States
, has a glorious little section about words that do and don't sound like what they mean. "Clank" sounds like what it means. "Pulchritude," not even close, which is why I like it so much.
Pulchritude means "possessing great beauty or physical appeal" even though it sounds like "possessing qualities of an object recently passed through a wood chipper." It's almost impossible to use in print without sounding horribly pretentious (which means Nabokov probably tossed it off without thinking and it sounded great, and Joan Didion has never shared a state with a word like "pulchritude." We, her fans, are better for it) although if there are examples, please let me know.
"Pulchritude" is also the theme of episode 4 of Your Ten Minute World, my halting, addictive try at podcasting. Each show is titled by a favorite word, which creates a theme the rest of the show (a book review, a song, and a factoid) riffs from.
Since pulchritude sounds nothing like what it means, my book review for this episode will be Elizabeth Royte's superb new Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, in which Royte takes her kitchen garbage and sees exactly where it goes and what role science, industry, and human ingenuity and greed play in its disposal. Sounds like rather dry (or wet and smelly) stuff for someone who knows nothing about ecology beyond recycling and even less about the chemical composition of landfill liners. But Royte's reporting, research, and voice are so elegant, so sublime, and so relentlessly thorough that it's one of those miraculous books where you learn a ton and are so wrapped up in reading you barely realize it.
Probably my favorite nonfiction book of last year. Thinking of the heaping, terrible beauty of Elizabeth Royte's study of trash may be one of the few times "pulchritude" actually sounds right.
What are some other words that don't sound like what they mean?