Dec 29 2011

Some words I like …..

Published by at 12:45 pm under Books

Thanks to my father, I collect weird words. He taught me all sorts of obscurities when I was young, drilled me on vocabulary at the dinner table, and made it a point to have me read the vocabulary feature in every Reader’s Digest. I still am in the habit of writing down the ones I don’t know in the flyleaf of whatever book I’m reading, or in a note file on my phone and then look them up later. Not looking up an unknown word seems …. ignorant to me. It’s there. It must be decoded.

Sesquepedalianism is a lost art, especially under the pressure of the “simple-and-direct” school of writing personified by the late Raymond Carver, where less is always more. Only a very brave few souls would ever drop one of these into a conversation, but every so often I find myself slipping a sedulous (showing dedication)  or an eleemosynary (related to charity) into conversation, but it’s truly dickheaded. My old writing teacher, John Hersey, was merciless in hunting down and destroying any lifeless latinate compound words. He’d turn over in his grave if he listened to a modern business consultant sling around bullshit buzzwords like “disintermediate” and “paradigm.”

This list is courtesy of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor, a British author and adventurer whom I’ve grown fond of since learning of him via his obituary earlier in 2011. I culled these from his two-volume memoir of his walk across Europe in the late 1930s from Holland to the Black Sea. A few of these are religious terms, which I became interested in during my 52-churches sojourn.

  • Paschal candle: a large candle blessed and lit on Holy Saturday and placed by the altar until Pentecost.
  • Myrmidons: a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly
  • Serried:  standing close together
  • Lappet:  a fold or hanging piece of flesh in some animals or a loose or overlapping part of a garment.
  • Pallium: a woollen vestment conferred by the Pope on an archbishop, consisting of a narrow circular band placed round the shoulders with a short lappet hanging from front and back or  a man’s large rectangular cloak, especially as worn by Greek philosophical and religious teachers.
  • Monstrance: an open or transparent receptacle in which the consecrated Host is displayed for veneration.
  • Chairoscuro: the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting.
  • Postillion: a person who rides the leading nearside (left-hand side) horse of a team or pair drawing a coach or carriage, especially when there is no coachman.
  • Equipage: the equipment for a particular purpose.
  • Dolman: a long Turkish robe open in front, a woman’s loose cloak with cape-like sleeves.
  • Moufflon: a small wild sheep with chestnut-brown wool, found in mountainous country from Iran to Asia Minor. It is the ancestor of the domestic sheep.
  • Syncope:  temporary loss of consciousness caused by a fall in blood pressure or the omission of sounds or letters from within a word, for example when library is pronounced.
  • Puissant: having great power or influence.
  • Congener: a thing or person of the same kind or category as another.

The downside of learning this uselessness is the immense frustration posed by Words With Friends when you try to play a perfectly valid word like “fisc” and get told by the thumb-sucker’s Zynga dictionary that it isn’t a word.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Some words I like …..”

  1. Fred Johansonon 29 Dec 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Uselessness? I disagree. This is English; our mother tongue. To paraphrase Stuart Brand, we might as well get good at it. I loved your list. Other than equipage and puissant, the only one I was familiar with was chiaroscuro (I believe you transposed the i and a, a typo, no doubt) which, as an art history major, I was exposed to early and often. In high school one of my best teachers put a slightly obscure new, to us, vocabulary word on the blackboard every day. I became addicted. To add to your list I offer “autodidact”, a self-educated individual (to my mind the best example is Winston Churchhill). I am sure the other frequent responders to this blog can come up with better ones.

  2. Jeff Higginson 31 Dec 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I’m thankful for the bizarre words (often obscure medical terms) we traded as teenagers, driving me to the dictionary and fostering a lifelong vocabulary obsession which deepened when I read Pynchon, Umberto
    Eco and Borges as a young man. Except for a pretty successful run with the Friday and Saturday NYT crossword puzzles I haven’t put it to much use (maybe there is no other use for such knowledge?). I love the built in dictionaries in my e-readers, and dictionary apps, cutting down considerably on the weight of my luggage. I was pleased to find I know 5 off your list.

  3. Leigh Perkinson 01 Jan 2012 at 9:53 am

    How very funny, David! I recently began a freshman English class at your high school with a vocabulary rant that started with “sesquipedalian”, which I had culled from Buckley’s obit some years ago. An entire white board in my classroom is dedicated to words used in general conversation that appear to make my students’ heads spin.
    Hooray for the word collectors! May you prosper in 2012!

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