Bewildering Stories

Steven Utley writes...

Words Is My Life

A writer must love words, of course, or seek another, nonverbal line of work. I don’t mind other writers’ tossing unknown words and phrases in my path — it’s why I have dictionaries, it’s how I expand my vocabulary. After a quarter of a century and more, I remain grateful to the critic John Simon for (among others) otiose and rutilant. I keep a notepad handy when I read, so that no unfamiliar words will elude me; jot down each as I encounter it, discover its meaning, and generally resolve on the spot to inflict it on other people at the earliest opportunity. I am still waiting for the least excuse to smack somebody upside the head with banausic (“pertaining to a mechanic or mechanic’s workshop”) or spregiadicato, either as it was defined during the 18th Century (“independence of mind, freedom from particularity or preconception”) or else in its 19th-Century sense (“lack of scruples, want of restraint, effrontery”); and if my eagerness to indulge in ambage and pleonasm (respectively, “a roundabout, indirect way of talking or doing things” and “the use of more words than are necessary for the expression of an idea”) strikes you as immature, well, at least grant that there are many more rebarbative (“repellent, repulsive, revolting, and altogether unattractive”) behaviors than merely acting like a kid with a new toy.

Not every word readily yields its meaning, however. I continue to puzzle over a couple I happened upon in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell and about which every dictionary in the house is maddeningly silent: bavardage and proticipate. Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions gave me effroyable, irrecuperable, mnemotechnical, and pleroma, which range in effect from merely disconcertingly unfamiliar to downright Brazil-nut-like in impenetrability. I don’t even remember where I got akasic and akoluthic, never mind what they mean.

Lawrence Durrell holds the record for highest number of times a single author has sent me to the dictionary. I encountered sixteen unfamiliar words in his novel, Justine, four of which — cigales, mumchance, porpentines, and scry — still elude me. But sixteen unfamiliar words are nothing; while reading Durrell’s first novel, The Black Book, I encountered no fewer than sixty-four unfamiliar words and phrases. I’m certain of the figure because I soon quit laying the novel aside to look up definitions — it destroyed narrative flow — and contented myself, just barely, with simply recording unfamiliar words while trying to grasp their meanings from context. Fucoid, gleet, eoan, luteous, sonsy, and surd have since served me well; aorist, a past tense of Greek verbs, denoting an action without indicating whether completed, continued, or repeated — not so well. Certain other words and phrases gleaned from The Black Book — debile, golls, invultuation, kinosis, per fretum febris, retromingent, senium, swanpan, tuism, urao — confound me to this day, and I feel that after all these years I can be excused for beginning to suspect, sour-grapes fashion, that they must have been typographical errors all along.

Steven, you should rush out and learn French. The words ambage, bavardage, cigales, débile, effroyable and irrécupérable are all in common use. Pléonasme, rébarbatif and rutilant are on a slightly higher-priced shelf, though.

Copyright © 2004 by Steven Utley and Bewildering Stories

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