Sounds Right to Discombobulate

This is clearly subjective, but some words really sound like the thing they describe (personal favorites: puffin; bulbous; fidgeting). Do you have an example of such a word (or, alternatively, of a word that sounds like the exact opposite of what it refers to)? What do you think creates this effect?

Isn’t the English language amazing? The width and depth of it amazes and fascinates me on a daily basis. Other languages have their benefits too but I grew up speaking only one language (although I know a small amount of Spanish). One of my favorite words to use is discombobulate. logo-discombobulate-web Say it outloud slowly – pausing with each syllable: Dis-com-bob-u-late: it means literally to disconcert or confuse. It just somehow sounds like a jumble, like a mess. “I feel so discombobulated today”.

Why not just say I feel so disconcerted today? Or I feel so confused today? Because discombobulate is just out and out fun! It rolls off the tongue, bounces around your head and leaves you a little disoriented. It’s almost a picture word, describing with each syllable, what it’s doing out there in the world – bouncing around randomly.

Years ago, when I took my first literature class in college, I was already fascinated by words thanks to a long line of teachers, and two successful spelling bees. But one part of literature I had not really explored up until that point had intimidated me completely: poetry. All I knew of poetry was Shakespeare and I struggled with it, albeit to a lesser degree, like my college classmates. My college professor, Mrs. Cook, opened my eyes to a whole new world with one simple, elegant poem that even now, over 15 years later, still sticks in my head as the ultimate in poetry.

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


(c) William Carlos Williams 1962

My entire college class was befuddled but I was utterly fascinated. I still am. My very first poem was written in the same minimalist, pictorial style and published eight months later in the college magazine. It was my first experience with enjambments (this is a common WCW technique – the meaning runs-over from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation.)

To me, that poem just SOUNDS right. I can explain the meaning behind the words, the depth of it all day long, but to me the poem rolls off my tongue like the sweetest music and fills me with warmth. To my ears, it SOUNDS like poetry.

Unlike some other types like certain free verse poetry (that just sounds like prose to me no matter how it’s read), this is poetry for me. Over the next few years I delved (another great word) into poetry with a fervor (ANOTHER great word). And I’ve been fascinated by words ever since – wordplay and puns are some of my favorite ways to play with others (sadly most people don’t get it).

The sad part is in our modern pop-obsessed culture people are losing touch with language. I learned in college to read and savor every word, to choose carefully because words have incredible power, for good and for bad. And I’ve built a large part of my career around words.

I think part of the reason behind the effect is the human imagination. It’s vast and varied within each individual. It creates and destroys. The human imagination is a powerful tool that is too often underutilized and criticized.


So what about you? What’s your favorite words? I’ve used a number of mine throughout this post. Can you spot them? How do they make you feel as you read them?


4 thoughts on “Sounds Right to Discombobulate

  1. I’ve always adored the word “discombobulate.” Like you pointed out, not only does it sound like what it means, but it’s really fun to say!

    I couldn’t agree more with your concern about losing touch with language. I worry for myself all the time that as the stream of information from social media, blogs, research articles, newspapers, emails and so on grows ever wider and faster, that I am losing my ability to deep read. To focus on and savor each word, to admire the cadence, to pick up each sentence, hold it closely in my palm, and turn it around and around for inspection, feeling its weight and its edges. That’s what I love about poetry: it forces you to slow down and savor.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • Thanks for commenting, I really appreciate your feedback! I love the word you used: cadence. Such a strongly evocative word. Glad to meet another word-lover like me!

      I find myself forcing myself to slow down and read critically. There’s so much “junk food for the mind” as I call it, that I try to limit that. My biggest junk food is People magazine. Occasionally they cover harder expose style topics (Angelina Jolie is a popular source for this) but most of the time it’s just gossip. Yet I am addicted. I can almost feel my IQ dropping! So I limit it to about 20 minutes browsing and skimming then follow up with 40 mins of news and current events. That seems to be a good ratio for me but it is definitely very deliberate!

      My college journalism professor (God I hated him, he flunked me for a feminism paper I wrote that he said was ambiguous when I was just trying to be balanced in my viewpoint) taught me that you have to do twice as much critical reading to keep critical reading skills tuned up. I have followed that guideline ever since.

  2. I don’t think I ever use this word, but you did, “befuddled” — I think I really like that word! I am going to have to seek out ways to add that into my vocabulary!

    I really like the words ameliorate and xanadu. I don’t ever even really use those words, but when I can, I throw them out there!

    • Those are really great words too! Ameliorate and xanadu are tough to use often. Ameliorate is one heck of a mouthful and I’ve seen that used mostly for academic purposes (government studies, whitepapers etc) and Xanadu is a place in China (or a romantic film from 1980). Those don’t come up very often in common conversation. Befuddled is fun too! I’ve used that one often. I like exposing my kids to new vocabulary words and that’s one that makes them giggle and ask “Mommy, what’s befuddled mean?” Great comment, thanks for stopping by!

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