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.
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?
- defile (as a noun)
- pounce box