IN PRAISE OF FANCY WORDS.

A nice little piece by Mark Bowden for The Atlantic:

I have the old English major’s habit of never reading past a word I don’t know, and have worn out more than a few pocket dictionaries. There are certain kinds of books, generally high-toned novels, that you expect to give you a good lexical workout—Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, for example, which I read for the first time this year after watching the great HBO miniseries, or anything by William Faulkner.[...]
Here are some of the puzzlers in The Guns at Last Light, [Rick Atkinson's World War II Liberation Trilogy]’s final volume: bedizened, biffing, cozenage, bootless, jinking, maledictory, spavined, tintinnabulation, anabasis, flinders. Some in that list may be more familiar than others, but speaking as someone who has been reading and writing for four decades, if a word stops me, it’s going to stop most people.

As I wrote Paul, who sent me the link (thanks, Paul!): “Frankly, I’m shocked that someone who has ‘the old English major’s habit of never reading past a word I don’t know’ and has ‘worn out more than a few pocket dictionaries’ wasn’t familiar with some of those words: really, he’d never seen bootless or spavined? (The ‘boot’ in the former, by the way, is an archaic noun meaning ‘deliverance,’ ‘avail,’ or ‘something to equalize a trade’; it still occurs in the phrase ‘to boot.’)”

Comments

  1. (I apologize for closing all older threads, but the spam was coming in thick and fast. The move to WordPress is actually happening, though; by next week you may see a whole new, and spam-free, LH!)

  2. It’s funny that he thinks it’s impressive that he’s “someone who has been reading and writing for four decades”. Who does he think he’s writing for, third-graders?

  3. Who the devil wouldn’t know “jinking”? Has an old English major really never heard of Xenophon’s Anabasis? He’s got me with “flinders” though, with the lower case f.

  4. I’ve “always” known that a spavined horse is in very poor nick. Over the years I’ve occasionally felt that I ought really to know in what way the animal is damaged. So I’ve looked it up. But it never sticks, so that five years later I’ll have to look it up again. I conclude that I’m just so indifferent to horsekind that I’m better sticking to the general understanding. In fact I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen the expression in a context where it mattered a hoot what the exact meaning was. Replacing it by “chocolate teapot” would often do pretty well.

  5. Steve Reilly says:

    “Anabasis” is another one I’m surprised he didn’t know. Military history and all that. And apparently not a Poe fan.
    Eh, I feel like I’m piling on. The stuff I don’t know could make one hell of a reference book…

  6. I’ve “always” known that a spavined horse is in very poor nick. Over the years I’ve occasionally felt that I ought really to know in what way the animal is damaged. So I’ve looked it up. But it never sticks, so that five years later I’ll have to look it up again.
    Yes, I have the same problem.

  7. Glancing at the comments, I see that all of you are surprised at his ignorance of the words I didn’t know, and none of you are surprised at his ignorance of the words I did know (flinders, cozenage, maledictory, tintinnabulation, bedizened, for those of us keeping score.)
    The trouble with not knowing a word is that you don’t know it until you do.

  8. I didn’t know “in very poor nick”.

  9. I knew that spavin had to do with feet — a spavined horse has trouble walking — but I couldn’t remember that it’s a sort of arthritis. As for flinders, I knew they were fragments, and vaguely supposed that The Flinders University was built on a site with lots of broken rock. But no, it’s almost 750 km from Flinders.

  10. Max Pinton says:

    “In good/poor nick” is very much BrE and I can never reconcile it in my mind with BrE “to nick” meaning to steal.
    Apparently the “condition” sense is of unknown origin:
    http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/130340/where-does-the-phrase-in-good-nick-come-from

  11. You would also think that ‘maledictory’ would be pretty inferable, assuming you know ‘benediction’.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    I can’t understand people carrying pocket dictionaries so as to be able to zero in on unknown words right away. A pocket dictionary is usually too small to list many unusual words, and the definitions are often misleading without specific contexts.
    I seldom encounter words I don’t know at all in French or English, but I don’t have a compulsion to look them up. I figure that if they occur often enough I will eventually understand them from the context, and if an unknown word keeps coming up, and I can’t guess even the general meaning, then I will look for a comprehensive dictionary to learn the word: I want to read the text, not the dictionary (which is another type of reading altogether). I used to tell my students to keep reading, trying to visualize the situation in the text, and not look up an unknown word unless they had seen it at least half a dozen times and they still had no idea what it meant. If you look up a rare word which does not recur in the text, “it doesn’t stick” (as someone remarked above). I am talking about the ordinary reader, not the professional translator who needs precision but should have read the entire text first, in order the catch the general ideas and situations, before settling down to the nitty-gritty of accurate translation.

  13. I agree that that’s a better approach for language-learning, Marie-Lucie, but I also think it’s a way to end up with an imprecise understanding of words.
    As a random example, I knew for years that “grizzled” was some trait old men had; perhaps some bear-like quality? A bushy beard? It wasn’t until I finally thought to look it up that I knew what it meant. (Though why isn’t it ever applied to women?)

  14. Alas, what boots it with incessant care
    To strictly meditate the thankless muse?

  15. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    Funnily enough, in Russian, one doesn’t even need to have actually read Xenophon to know what anabasis is: anyone who has read Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk – which is to say, more or less anyone who reads at all – would know the word.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Hmm, what to add that hasn’t been said? I agree with the comments about anabasis, and anyone who can’t work out what maledictory without resorting to a dictionary must lack a classical education. I agree with Marie-Lucie that reaching for the dictionary with every unfamiliar word slows one down too much and causes one to lose the thread — unless of course it’s a rare occurrence. In English I don’t often meet a word that I can’t guess from the context. In French or Spanish it happens much more often, of course, but I still try to work it out from the context. The “four decades” (and the unfamiliarity with anabasis) made me think he must be a lot younger than I am, but in fact he isn’t, only eight years younger, so what was he doing until he was 22 — just playing football? He’s probably a relative of mine (as Bowden is not that common a name, but I don’t know in what way.

  17. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    anyone who can’t work out what maledictory without
    …anyone who can’t work out what maledictory means without…

  18. “Funnily enough, in Russian, one doesn’t even need to have actually read Xenophon to know what anabasis is: anyone who has read Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk – which is to say, more or less anyone who reads at all – would know the word.”
    Dmitry, this is what I was going to say. Not sure if younger people are so well familiar with Švejk but if you’re 40+ and grew up in the old USSR… I’m sure Xenophone got more than a passing mention in our school history textbook, but it’s Švejk’s Budejovice Anabasis that pops up in my mind every time I see the word.

  19. Hold on, hold on, hold on; “flinders”, flinders, flinders. Could that be a word from my childhood, used as an alternative to “smithereens” for those wee bits that an object becomes when smashed?

  20. Jeffry House says:

    Maybe spavined horses were more common in 19th century Russia than in the reading world of Mr. Bowden; but “bootless”?
    The requirement that every educated person memorize Shakespeare’s 29th sonnet was drilled into my head by my high-school English teacher, Mrs. Ahasay, and fifty years later, I still know what bootless means, and “deaf heaven” is becoming conceptually clear, too.
    Where are the standards, I ask!

  21. used as an alternative to “smithereens” for those wee bits that an object becomes when smashed?
    Yes, exactly. I may have told this story before, but I once used that word in a poem thinking I had invented it, and was quite proud of myself, only to discover later it was a real word. Checking the OED now (“Fragments, pieces, splinters. Chiefly in phrases, as to break or fly in(to flinders“; first cite 1508: Golagros & Gawane, “Thair speris in the feild in flendris gart ga”), I see I must have read it in Pound’s Pisan Cantos lxxx—”And the Osservanza is broken/ And the best de la Robbia busted to flinders”—and unconsiously assimilated it while consciously forgetting it. Funny how the mind works.

  22. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    Alexei, my point exactly. At any rate, I believe I (40+ and having grown up in the USSR) must have first learned Xenophon’s name from a footnote in Švejk – which I have read and re-read many times many years before ever opening the original Anabasis.

  23. Little Polly Flinders
    Sat among the cinders,
    Warming her pretty little toes.
    Her Mother came and caught her,
    And whipped her little daughter
    For spoiling her nice new clothes.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Max P: I agree that that’s a better approach for language-learning, Marie-Lucie, but I also think it’s a way to end up with an imprecise understanding of words.
    I don’t mean that I never consult a dictionary, only that I don’t stop reading whenever I encounter an unfamiliar word. Reading Latin American literature that way, I learned a lot of Spanish vocabulary, narrowing down the meanings as I encountered the words in different contexts.

  25. Who the devil wouldn’t know “jinking”?
    I didn’t, actually. I knew what high jinks were, but I never thought to wonder about the ordinary kind. OED says jink is ‘orig. Sc.’ – maybe it hasn’t made its way to California? Anyway, it’s a good day when you learn a new four-letter word.

  26. Graham Asher says:

    I think this must be a BrE / AmE thing. None of these words is particularly arcane (among people who have been reading or writing for a decade or more) over here on the E side of the pond.

  27. John Crowley has a funny passage in which the narrator says that the name “Flinders Petrie” always makes him picture the archeologist smashing rocks to bits in search of artifacts.
    And anyone who can’t figure out “maledictory” has a poor English education.

  28. Anyone who doesn’t know the meaning of “jinking” has obviously never played British Bulldog. Or rugby or soccer.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    I suspect no one in the now-closed “Sinjin” thread has done much recent US cable-tv watching in the company of tween-aged girls, since no one mentioned the minor-but-recurring character Sinjin Van Cleef from the Nickelodeon channel’s popular show “Victorious.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorious#Recurring_cast. I didn’t know it was spelled “Sinjin” rather than “St. John” before consulting wikipedia; fwiw the character does not speak with a British or Irish accent or otherwise seem by language use atypical for a contemporary Southern California high school student.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Anyone who doesn’t know the meaning of “jinking” has obviously never played British Bulldog. Or rugby or soccer.
    That describes me on both counts! I don’t see why I or anyone should be expected to have had such experiences.

  31. I don’t think dearieme was expecting everyone to have had such experiences, just saying that anyone who had had them would know the word, as if I were to say “Anyone who doesn’t know the meaning of phoneme has obviously never taken a linguistics class.”

  32. I must be from the same general social class, age and education as Mark Bowden – other than “maledictory” I don’t recognize any of the words he listed, Then again, I don’t claim to be an English major.

  33. I first encountered tintinnabulation in The Bells by E .A. Poe, about 30 years ago, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen it in print since.

  34. Garrigus Carraig says:

    In fifth grade Latin we were taught a translation of “Jingle Bells” which began: Tinniat, tinniat tintinnabulum. That’s all I remember of the song, & that’s how I know “tintinnabulation”. The only other things I remember from that class are the first verse of “Gaudeamus igitur” & the teacher’s shouts of “Optime!” when a question was correctly answered.

    That Latin was available in a big-city U.S. public school (albeit a relatively good one) seems kind of otherworldly now.

  35. I wonder how Bowden approached Jabberwocky…

    ISTM that the more typical “old English mayor’s habit” is to NOT look up every unfamiliar word. I don’t know which habit is better, but I think that’s an unusual approach to take, especially if you read in bulk.

  36. Garrigus:

    Nives glacies, nos pueritia!
    Risus decet nunc, decent carmina!
    Laetos iuvat nos ire per agros!
    Traha fert velociter, et cachinnemus nos!
    CHORUS:
    Tinniat, tinniat tintinnabulum1
    Labimur in glacie post mulum curtum!
    Tinniat, tinniat tintinnabulum!
    Labimur in glacie post mulum curtum!

    Me nuper miserum temptavit lunae lux!
    Mox assidebat mihi puella facti dux!
    Vecti subito in nivis cumulos –
    Caballus est perterritus et tunc eversi nos!
    CHORUS.

    More carols in Latin here..

  37. Ningiat, ningiat, ningiat was my class’s favorite.

  38. John Emerson says:

    I first saw the world “loathe” in Mark Twain and assumed that it was hillbilly dialect.

  39. In Britain we usually play football, not soccer, dearieme

  40. Since dearieme said “Anent jinking and one of the civilised football codes,” I think he’s well aware of that.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    s/o: Ningiat, ningiat, ningiat was my class’s favorite.

    Sung to the tune of Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow ?

  42. Marie-Lucie – ita.

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