What Word Speaks to You?

August 30, 2021

Vagabonding in France with Friends, by Lloyd Bishop

You know how a particular smell can evoke a vivid memory or powerful feeling? Is there a word in English that does that for you? 

Emotional connections and mental associations with words vary from person to person: a word I find exotic may disgust you, or a word you enjoy saying might embarrass me!

It can be fun knowing certain words speak to you; that is, they represent or express something meaningful to you. Finding them, becoming aware of their “powers,” and using them deliberately are satisfying experiences in themselves. 

There’s a practical benefit, too: doing this helps you become a word cultivator, a grower of vocabulary. You’ll become more conscious about which words you choose to use, and more eager to add new words to your active supply.  

To inspire you on this word-seeking journey, I’ll share an example of my own. Recently, the word vagabond caught my eye, and then it lingered in my mind. I realized I really like that word, and I wondered why. 

Looking carefully at some dictionary entries, however, I saw negative aspects indicating that some people might not share my enthusiasm. Readers of this article may have diverse reactions to “vagabond.” 

The basic meaning of “vagabond” is “a person who wanders from place to place; a wanderer.” I’ll mention its less pleasant nuances in a moment. Right now, I invite you to say the word aloud, stressing the first syllable: 


Or if you prefer phonetic symbols: gə bɑnd

When you say it, do you have any particular feeling or association? If so, note it now, before I discuss my own, so you can accurately recall your immediate reaction.

For me, “vagabond” is an alluring word. The idea of wandering has an old, familiar charm. I was a restless kid who fell in love with outdoor travel and adventure. “Vagabond” vibrates with the excitement of the unknown, the romance of the road, discoveries to be made just over the horizon and, best of all, along the way. 

In fact, the word literally vibrates: all eight of its letters are voiced; that is, our vocal cords vibrate to produce consonants v, g, b, n, d, and vowels are always voiced. That’s why I ask you to say it aloud: give it your voice and you’ll feel it vibrate! 

Also, I find the ONE-two-three rhythm, with its unstressed but long final syllable, resonant and satisfying: VAA-guh-bonnnd.

“Vagabond” evokes memories of bicycle trips I took as a teenager, which featured a lot of improvising and plan-changing, and roundabout walks I’ve often taken with no destination in mind. More broadly, “vagabond” is a vision of “the wanderer,” the wayfaring mystic, someone who knows that magic still exists and can be found, if we only look for it. 

Dictionaries offer meanings and synonyms of “vagabond” that range from neutral — “a person who travels from place to place” — to unstable or unpleasant — “unsettled or aimless wanderer, drifter, hobo, tramp, vagrant, irresponsible idler, loafer, loiterer, street person, beggar, bum.” 

My thinking is that with all those other words to express degrees of disdain, why lump “vagabond” in with the rest? It has its own distinct open-air, open-road free spirit! 

I wonder how perceptions of the word vary across cultures. For example, I’ve heard Great Britain permits overland walking: cross-country rambling, hiking between towns, along farmers’ fields, and through woods, whether public and private. Meanwhile, in the USA, “No Trespassing” signs abound on private property — a slight improvement over “Trespassers Will Be Shot” versions, but threatening nevertheless.

As security concerns and social distrust mount, and human life retreats indoors, “vagabond” could be losing its appeal. And with its associations ranging from unhoused people to social parasites, “vagabond” may require judicious use in public. That’s OK with me. I’ll give “my” word the special treatment it deserves, and choose contexts that welcome its promise of a story.

*  *  *  *  *  

SOURCES: Google dictionary (google.com: “vagabond,” “vagrant,” and related entries); Cambridge English Dictionary (dictionary.cambridge.org: “vagabond,” “vagrant”); Merriam-Webster Dictionary (merriam-webster.com: “vagabond”); Dictionary.com (dictionary.com: “vagabond”).

A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 26, 2021.


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