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Word Power

We recently wrote that verbs are the parts of speech that become extinct the most quickly. Now we've learned that if you want to perform at your peak, at school or on the job, you should carefully consider how you discuss your past actions. Also, why are some words considered attractive while their synonyms are thought of as repugnant? And finally, some residents of Alaska have coined a new verb, based on moon dust!

Psychologists William Hart and Dolores Albarracin have discovered that the way a statement is phrased (and specifically, how the verbs are used), affects our memory of an event being described and may also influence our behavior.A group of volunteers were interrupted prior to finishing a word game and were then asked to describe their behavior using either an "ing" verb (I was solving word puzzles) or a regular past tense (I solved word puzzles) aspect. The volunteers then completed a memory test (for the word game) or a word game which was similar to the first one they had worked on.

It turns out that the volunteers who had described their behavior using "solving" were able to recall more specific details of their experience compared to volunteers who had described their behavior in the simple past tense. The "ing" group also performed better on the second word game and were more willing to complete the task than the others.When we think about our behavior with an "ing" verb (what we were doing), we tend to imagine that behavior as ongoing (and not completed yet). This enables us to easily think about what went into that behavior and may help us improve performance on similar tasks in the future.

Why are some words more appealing than others that are used to describe the same thing? This can be important if you're writing a novel or article or naming a new company. Classicist Robert E. Wolverton took a survey of 75 students in his classes and found that, of the 148 different "beautiful" words submitted by students this year, several were listed many times: eloquent (six), love (four) and symphony (four). Beautiful, lavender and tranquility each received three mentions. "Mellifluous" and "lullaby," two words consistently considered pretty over the years, dropped off this year's list. "Susurrus," which describes a soft, whispering or rustling sound, made the list for the first time, however.

Of the 138 "ugly" words, the following are mentioned multiple times: vomit (six), moist (five), puke (five), phlegm (four), slaughter (four), snot (four), ugly (four), damp (three), and mucus (three). A novelist or screenwriter could use this information to make the bad guy seem even "badder," by using unattractive language, and the hero seem even better by doing the opposite.

Finally, there's a new verb in Alaska: "to ash." It's like "to snow," only grayer and more sulfurous. Michelle Cosper, who lives downwind of the active volcano Mount Redoubt, says, "The ash has created a moonscape with all the highlights of gray." When that happens, the locals says it

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