The Meaning Behind the Meaning

A short-short story about lexical love.

Posted May 31, 2017

Public Domain Pictures
Source: Public Domain Pictures

This is the second in a five-part series. It should help professionals to take their vocabulary to the highest level likely needed.

The words should be especially useful to people in the helping professions.

This installment uses the short-short story format to avoid the how-to article’s aridity.

Barbara was a psychologist who wanted to keep learning but only in bits and pieces. So she decided to improve her vocabulary. She combed advanced word lists on and, to create a list of words she had heard of but whose meaning she couldn’t recall.

She decided it might be more effective and fun to have someone test her. So she reviewed tutors' profiles on and She found herself wanting to pick an attractive man of her age who was highly intelligent, and she hit a home run: Matt has a Ph.D. in lexicography, the practice of creating dictionaries!

After just two sessions, Barbara had learned all the words on her list and didn’t feel the need to unearth additional ones. But she liked working with Matt and so proposed that she and Matt have one more session, in which they’d discuss subtle differences between apparent synonyms. Barbara had an additional purpose—She wanted to seduce him. So she placed the word pairs in an order: increasingly personal, and she would make her sample sentences increasingly intimate.

 “So, Matt, let’s begin. It would seem that ‘photographic’ and ‘eidetic’ are synonyms:  If you have an eidetic memory, it’s a photographic memory.” Matt replied, “Not really. An eidetic memory is when you recall an event visually, almost like a photograph. A few kids but almost no adults report having eidetic memories. In contrast, "photographic memory" refers to the ability to perfectly recall pages of text or numbers. Except in fiction, no human can do that." Barbara replied, “So I might say, 'Our first session was so vivid, I have an almost eidetic memory of it?'” He said, “I suppose.” He glanced at her to try to discern if her sentence had a subtextual meaning.

Barbara then said, "How about 'pretentious' versus 'pompous?'” Matt replied, “The pretentious person has no basis for feeling superior while the pompous person might."  Barbara replied, “So the brilliant professor diminished her appeal because of her pompous delivery, and her acolytic, sophomoric student asked a pretentious question to try to impress.”

Matt said, “I’m impressed: acolytic, sophomoric? Okay, now I’ll ask you one: What’s the difference between complacent and complaisant?" Barbara was delighted that she knew that one: “Complacent means unjustifiably self-satisfied while complaisant means inclined to please. Here it is in a sentence: Your complaisance is mitigated by my complacency in feeling I already have a big-enough vocabulary.” He smiled at her, which melted her a bit.

“Okay, Matt, here are two words that truly seem interchangeable: 'inexorable' and 'ineluctable.' Matt replied, “Few words are truly interchangeable. In this case, ‘inexorable’ refers to an unstoppable movement while ‘ineluctable’ refers to an unarguably logical conclusion. Barbara tried, “So, it’s ineluctable that our inexorably plowing through my list of ostensible synonyms would come to an end, alas.” She feigned a pout and he laughed.

Barbara said, “I have one more: 'salacious' vs. 'concupiscent.’ Matt blushed. “That’s easy: 'Salacious' refers merely to sexually oriented language. 'Concupiscent' refers to sexual desire.“

And with that, their lexical relationship turned concupiscent.

The takeaway

Precision of language is especially valuable in professional communication. The embedded words in this article, of course, are merely samples of the many useful words that go beyond average vocabularies.

The previous articles in this series are:

46 Uncommon But Useful Words.

The Beyond-the-GRE Quiz plus the 325 words that were on my to-learn list.

Saying What You Intend: 27 distinctions you should make.

41 Useful Words and a Fun Way to Learn Them

Dr. Nemko’s nine books, including his just-published Modern Fables: short-short stories with life lessons are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at

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