Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2014
The Legal Writer
Vacuous Verbiage on Valentine's Day
By Suzanne E. Rowe
I hate Valentine’s Day. Remember that it commemorates some poor bishop being martyred, so it certainly wasn’t a great day for him.
Mostly, the day seems to celebrate the commercialization of romantic love by tripling the prices of roses, chocolates and lingerie. I happen to think chocolate is a perfectly fine surprise on any random Tuesday, and fortunately the nice man who lives at my house agrees.
Pondering the recent holiday did, however, lead me to the V section of my favorite dictionary (formally known as The New Oxford American Dictionary). I returned from the voyage with a veritable feast of words — some verboten, some vacuous and a few easily confused.
In a word, “vacuous” means “mindless.” A vacuous speech might sound like poetry, but it shows little thought and conveys little intelligent information. Perhaps a politician can get by with a vacuous stump speech, but your closing argument needs to pack some intellectual punch.
Valetudinarian vs. Hypochondriac
The two words “valetudinarian” and “hypochondriac” are very close in meaning. Both refer to someone who is excessively concerned about health. The slight difference is that a valetudinarian might actually be sick, as one definition of the word is “a person suffering from poor health.” The hypochondriac’s anxiety is often groundless. So my grandmother was always a hypochondriac, but only rarely a valetudinarian.
Various vs. Several
“Various” comes from the same Latin word as “variety,” and its definition focuses on difference. If your brief raises “various arguments,” then those arguments are different from one another. They show variety.
Don’t confuse “various” with “several,” which focuses on number. A brief that raises “several arguments” has more than two arguments, but not very many — and those arguments might not be very different.
Venal vs. Venial
Though perhaps not used often, “venal” and “venial” are easily confused — perhaps because both deal with shady conduct. Venal means “corrupt” or “motivated by susceptibility to bribery.” Think of venal politicians or judges (not in Oregon, of course, but far away).
“Venial” describes a sin that isn’t all that terrible. While a mortal sin (gluttony!) might damn your soul, a venial sin (fondness for chocolate?) can be forgiven.As another example, forgetting to buy roses on Valentine’s Day is at most a venial offense, not a mortal sin. You might be murdered, but you won’t be damned in the hereafter.
Veracious vs. Voracious
Here again, just one little letter can make a big difference in meaning. “Veracious” is a formal — and to my ear rather uppity — way of saying someone’s telling the truth. You’ll convince most audiences more often if you describe your witness as “truthful” rather than “veracious,” just because the less formal word is easier to understand.
“Voracious” refers to appetites, either literally noting someone eating huge quantities of food or figuratively noting someone who engages energetically in a pastime, like reading. Having a voracious appetite for food can lead to gluttony, a mortal sin. But having a voracious appetite for reading isn’t even a venial sin (unless, perhaps, it keeps your daughter from cleaning her room).
Verbal vs. Oral
Technically, “verbal” is about words, whether spoken or written. Think of “verbal” in opposition to “visual.” But “verbal” can also mean “spoken rather than written,” making it a synonym of “oral.” Thus, some nonlawyers might think “verbal agreement” works just as well as “oral agreement,” but I don’t recommend that. (I’ve come across a few curmudgeons who insist that “verbal” should refer only to nonspoken words, while “oral” covers spoken words. I can’t find support for that other than their heartfelt belief.)
This word is just a bit too long and pompous for my tastes. “Verisimilitude” means seeming or appearing to be true or real. So why not just say that?
“Verbiage” is excess. It may refer to too many words or too many technicalities. But it’s always too much. The first image that pops into my head is President William Henry Harrison, who delivered his two-hour inaugural address on a cold, rainy day while not wearing a proper coat or hat. His presidency lasted just over a month. Perhaps with less verbiage in the speech (or proper clothes) he would have been remembered for more than the brevity of his tenure.
I’ll confess that this word has always puzzled me a bit. I knew, of course, that it had to do with granting a gift or something like that, but the attitude of the giver has been a little hazy. Alas, my favorite dictionary’s first definition did little to help: “give or grant (something) to (someone) in a gracious or condescending manner.” So is the giver gracious (i.e., kind) or condescending (i.e., patronizing)? The dictionary’s example provided little illumination: “it is a gift vouchsafed him by heaven.” My second choice dictionary (Merriam-Webster) offered a similarly puzzling first definition, so I remain puzzled.
The second definition is clearer: “to reveal or disclose information.” The witness “vouchsafed” a crucial detail during a second interview. Aha!
Vomitous vs. Vomitus
This is a charming pair. “Vomitous” is an adjective that means “nauseating.” The result is “vomitus” – a noun meaning “matter that has been vomited.” What a perfect thought for Valentine’s Day!
Here’s another unfortunate V word for Valentine’s Day. Vicissitude (usually used in the plural form, vicissitudes) is an unwelcomed change in circumstances. It could refer to your uncle’s fortunes during the Great Recession. I hope it didn’t refer to your relationship with that special someone on February 15.
This word means “bitter and abusive.” Not appropriate for Valentine’s Day, or any day. (And after vomitous, vomitus, vicissitude and vituperative, I need some happy V words!)
Voila! I was delighted to find one of my favorite French words has been adopted into English, even though it lost its little accent over the final letter. To my ear, “Voila!” conveys the joy of “Here it is!” and “There you are!” It’s a perfect word to use as you present the perfect gift, or look up to see your Valentine walk into the room. It’s also a perfect word to use on a random Tuesday when you see your sweetheart and remember how lucky you are.
My favorite dictionary seems willing to adopt words from other languages but not from other worlds. Thus, “Vulcan” continues to refer only to the Roman god of fire, not the home planet of Spock.
A friend’s baby is named Veronica. The name initially reminded me of the Archie comics, but “veronica” has multiple meanings: 1) a plant with spikes of flowers in purple and blue hues; 2) a cloth impressed with an image of the face of Jesus; and 3) a move in bullfighting. My favorite definition isn’t in my favorite dictionary: a beautiful, brilliant little girl who I hope will grow up to love language. (And hate Valentine’s Day.)
The New Oxford American Dictionary (3d ed. 2010) (aka “my favorite dictionary”).
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, available at m-w.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She appreciates the helpful suggestions of Andrew Hennigan, Sonnet Robinson and Sara Shapland on this article.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2014 Suzanne E. Rowe