Sex & words: One book and the 95 words I didn’t know

Words, like sex, can be used to commune with someone, to “share something in a very personal or spiritual way.” They can also be used for one’s own pleasure. At their worst, they can be used to make one person feel superior at the expense of another.

This is what I was thinking as I read a book of essays titled, perhaps ironically, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman.

Confessions of a Common Reader

The Joy of Sesquipedalia

One of the essays, “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” was about the author’s fondness for words. (“Sesquipedalia” means, as I learned upon looking it up, “long words.” It’s from the latin sesquipedalis - “measuring a foot and a half.”)

The essay was about a book she had read that was written in 1920 by Carl Van Vechten. It was titled The Tiger in the House and was about, of all things, cats.

“What simultaneously most thrilled me and made me feel most like a dunce was Van Vechten’s vocabulary. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d met so many words I didn’t know. By the end of the book I’d jotted down twenty-two.”

In the rest of the essay, she quizzed friends and family about how many of those twenty-two they knew, with wide-ranging results.

The ignominy of ignorance

I pride myself on my vocabulary and yet didn’t know any of the 22 words. And I wondered: What other words in this book don’t I know? So I went back to the beginning and circled every word I couldn’t define.

Though the book is only 154 pages, I found 95 words I didn’t know, including the 22 contributed by Carl Van Vechten. On page 117 alone there were 4 words I had never seen before. Even my word processing application bristled at 20 of them, chiding me with 20 red squiggles.

I tried to take solace in knowing some words that seemed difficult:

conjugate triptych marginalia apogee corpus parsimonious festooned frisson quixotry prescient necrosis vestigial gewgaws verisimilitude perspicacity provenance pell-mell somnambulist ectomorph

But it was cold comfort. They’re vestiges from studying for standardized tests in high school. The frisson, as they say, was gone.

A special kind of love

Was the author showing off? Indulging herself? Trying to make the reader feel inferior? I don’t think so. On each page you can feel her genuine love of books and words. She was simply sharing that love the best way she knew how, in what for her was a “very personal or spiritual way.”

I was humbled, and decided to face the truth about just how good my vocabulary is (or, more to the point, isn't). No guessing or trying to make sense of a word from the context. If I didn’t know it, I listed it, and I can already hear you saying "What? He didn't know that?!"

Here are the 95 words I didn't know in the order they appear in the book, including the 22 words unfamiliar to the author. (I put those in italics.) I linked to online dictionaries so you can see the definitions yourself if you like.

Do you find the use of these words thrilling or a turn-off?

How many do you know?

  1. miscegenated
  2. motets
  3. interlarding
  4. vermicule
  5. ptarmigan
  6. sesquipedalian
  7. repletion
  8. monophysite
  9. mephitic
  10. calineries
  11. diapason
  12. grimoire
  13. adapterile
  14. retromingent
  15. perllan
  16. cupellation
  17. adytum
  18. sepoy
  19. subadar
  20. paludal
  21. apozemical
  22. camorra
  23. ithyphallic
  24. alcalde
  25. aspergill
  26. agathodemon
  27. kakodemon
  28. goetic
  29. opopanax
  30. elegiac
  31. glossologically
  32. seracs
  33. pemmican
  34. hoosh
  35. prosodically
  36. trenchant
  37. unregenerate
  38. trochee
  39. soi-disant
  40. lapidary
  41. bibliolatrous
  42. palimpsests
  43. alluvium
  44. fascicles
  45. umber
  46. hotchpotch
  47. hoary
  48. hortatory
  49. distaff
  50. abjuration
  51. bibliomane
  52. tangency
  53. nonesuch
  54. bravura
  55. eidetic
  56. redolent
  57. schist
  58. defile (as a noun)
  59. slomped
  60. nimbus
  61. sanguinary
  62. lissome
  63. captious
  64. pettifogging
  65. dragées
  66. helpmeet
  67. rufous
  68. towhee
  69. descried
  70. ferrule
  71. purdah
  72. pounce box
  73. ichor
  74. spoor
  75. prolix
  76. embonpoint
  77. turpitude
  78. emendations
  79. placable
  80. moly
  81. piezo
  82. lucubrations
  83. ventail
  84. kerf
  85. villanelle
  86. blandishments
  87. excursi
  88. lubricious
  89. frontispiece
  90. salacities
  91. vulpine
  92. erysipelas
  93. lumbago
  94. catarrh
  95. declivitous