Solitaria Verba

Language is tamed noise. Locked inside a calcium cage, our tongues, like wild beasts, are subjugated and conditioned to perform from a repertoire of acoustic tricks. As the grotesque, red muscle contorts and undulates, vibrations from within cavernous depths are molded into distinct tones. When pushed up against one another, these tones meld into creatures known as a words. Words seldom appear alone, preferring to gather in small groups called sentences. The shape and size of words will differ from region to region, each vocal species, or language, employing its own unique variations. Together, all the words roaming the plains of our mind form a vocabulary.

Words offer a means to meaning, and every word is unique. Some words are docile and benevolent, some are cunning and devious, while others are ruthless and threatening. By calling forth words, we can invoke their nature to create sentences which have the the power to exalt or shame, create or destroy. However, there are some sentences which have a meaning distinct from the sum of their words; these are known as idioms. 

Often puzzling to outsiders, an idiom employs familiar words in unfamiliar ways by borrowing meaning from culture and legend. But beyond the realm of the idiom, there remains an even more rare and mysterious form of verbal expression. Though they could technically be classified as idioms, this special variety contains solitaria verba (isolated words). This means that inside each phrase there is a word which is not used in normal speech, instead appearing only in combination with select words. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Aided and abetted
  • Happy belated birthday
  • Coursing through its veins
  • Pent up anger
  • Clean slate
  • Jog your memory
  • Rail against authority
  • Off kilter
  • Vehemently disagree
  • Let bygones be bygones
  • Stave off hunger
  • Gale-force winds
  • Star-spangled banner
  • Bubonic plague
  • Hellacious beating
  • Self-deprecating humor
  • Abject poverty
  • Wreak havoc
  • Stunt your growth
  • Stoop to their level
  • Doesn’t bode well
  • Pare it down
  • Vested interest
  • Rue the day
  • Torrential rain
  • A moot point
  • Biding your time
  • Morbidly obese
  • Sweltering heat
  • Full-fledged professional
  • Snide remark
  • Good riddance
  • Rifled through
  • Privy to the information
  • That was riveting
  • Batten down the hatches
  • Figment of the imagination
  • Tide you over
  • Run amok
  • Keel over
  • Fell swoop
  • New-fangled contraption
  • Rickety ladder
  • Scantily clad
  • Brunt of the impact
  • Staunch atheist
  • Gyrating hips
  • Brandishing a weapon
  • Beck and call
  • Frenetic pace
  • Abominable snowman

These words are used by many, but could be defined by few. We don’t think about the definition of each individual word because we know the meaning of the phrase, but that means we are saying words that we don’t even understand. Perhaps, if put on the spot we could come up with a vague, clumsy definition, but we don’t really know what these words mean because they aren’t a part of our vocabulary. Let’s think for a moment: what things are abominable, other than snowmen? Have escaped zoo animals ever walked amok? When did we ever rue the night or wish someone bad riddance? Did we ever bide anything other than time or play with something that was just plain fangled?

Don’t use words you don’t understand.