To quote Andrew Zangrilli, from whose Blogbook post I took this list:

Do you have a good vocabulary? Prove it, smarty.

Test your knowledge against the vocab champ, Judge Selya of the First Circuit.

The following word list was gathered from his recent decisions. How many can you define?


0-2: dunce
3-5: average
6-11: whiz kid
12-18: 2 smart

I got only one totally wrong (the first — Brother Auger, my seventh-grade Latin teacher, would be very disappointed in me); one other was close enough for government work if not for legal scrutiny. But I had to check the OED several times to make sure my instincts were right. These are, by and large, words you’ll never have a use for (unless you’re Judge Selya), but it’s always fun to stretch one’s vocabulary. (Via Transblawg.)

Addendum. Since I’m linking to this bit of japery on the part of the Tensor, I’d better append the real definitions, so as not to contribute to the Veil of Ignorance:

Algid – cold
Decurtate – to cut short
Dehors – outside
Exigible – that may be demanded
Encincture – to girdle
Asseverational – like a solemn affirmation
Chiaroscuro – interplay of light and shade/dark
Solatium – compensation (law: ‘sum of money paid, over and above the actual damages, as a solace for injured feelings’)
Isthmian – situated on or forming an isthmus (in particular, belonging to the Isthmus of Corinth; esp. in “Isthmian games”)
Anent – regarding, concerning
Sockdolager – decisive blow or answer; something outstanding
Nonce – current occasion, time being
Purlieu – place where one has the right to range at large, or which one habitually frequents, a haunt; outskirts
Gallimaufry – heterogeneous mixture, confused jumble
Perscrutation – thorough investigation, careful scrutiny
Longiloquent – (given to) speaking at great length
Integument – (natural) covering (skin, shell, husk, rind, etc)
Asthenic – weak

(Note: these are mostly not full definitions—that’s what dictionaries are for—just quick approximations that will give you the basic idea and will hopefully be easier to remember, should you wish to do such a thing.)

A couple of the etymologies are particularly interesting. Here’s anent(OED):

The form-history of this wd. presents several points not fully explained; the primitive form is the OE. phrase on efen, on efn, on emn, with the dative = ‘on even (ground) with, on a level with,’ whence later side by side with, beside, face to face with, opposite, against, towards, in view of, etc.; cogn. w. OS. an eban, MHG. eneben, neben, and (with phonetic –t) nebent. In Eng. also a final –t had been developed by 1200, interchanging with –d, perhaps by form-assoc. with some other word. At the same time this extended form occurs with final –e and –es, after datival and genitival words like on-bute(n, on-eanes. Following the latter class also, the final –s became in 14th c. –st, giving anentist, anentst, anenst, as the midl. form, in literary use in 17th c., and still dialectal. The north preserved the earlier anent, still common in north. dial., and in literary and legal Scotch, whence not unfrequent in literary Eng. during the present [ie, 19th!] century. The early form anende may have been influenced by the prec. phr. AN-END; anont, anond(e, are not explained. The development of meaning is largely parallel to that of again, against.

And here’s purlieu:

Exemplified in 1482 in the form purlew(e, app. an erroneous alteration of purley, syncopated from puraley, the natural Eng. spelling (cf. alley, city, army) in the 15th c. of AF. puralé, -alée, taken in its transferred sense (PURALÉ 2).

For the history of puralé, -alee (purale) in English between c1330 and 1482 written evidence is wanting; in Anglo-Fr. legal documents it continued to be written puralé, poralee (examples of which, of 1370-78, in the sense ‘purlieu’ appear under PURALÉ 2); but, as an English word, it would naturally become puraley, puraly (‘pur@le, ‘pur@li), and easily be syncopated to purley, purly, as still seen in the 16th c. and later, esp. in the comb. purleyman, which shows that this was the pronunciation even after the spelling was changed. Purlew may have originated in a scribal error, or as a pseudo-etymological spelling, erroneously associating the word with lew, leu, LIEU, place; app. it did not appear in law Fr. till later, when it was prob. taken over from Eng., and Gallicized as purlieu: see quot. 1574 [1574 in J. Dyer Reports (1592) 327 En le manor dun Fortescue de S. adjoynont al dit chace, come en le purlieu del chase.. le libertie del purlieu remayna unextincted].


  1. aldiboronti says

    I got one wrong too, but in my case it was asthenic which tripped me up. Sockdolager would have been tricky had I not recently come across the Lincoln association.
    More such judges!

  2. I’m average, and that only because of blogging. I knew chiaroscuro and nonce before this year, but I didn’t know gallimaufry until discovering Uncle Jazzbeau. I guess I can take comfort in seeing proof that blogging makes you smarter.

  3. Legal writers do like that abstruse vocabulary — and not just the technical legal terms. When I was 16 I read Roscoe Pound’s “Development of Constitutional Guarantees of Liberty” (something like that). I learned, from a single sentence, the terms “hortatory”, “nugatory”, and “fiduciary”, which in context were synonyms (describing laws with no actual effect). At the time I felt equal shares of hilarity and annoyance, but I will always remember those words.
    Also “eleemosynary”, though not in the same sentence.
    I would have scored no better than 50% on this one. Trust me.

  4. 3 outta 18.
    Woo-hoo, duncehood here I come.

  5. I am a dunce.
    However, do you think that obscure vocabulary has actual merit? I am a big fan of the right word in the right place, and there are some not-so-common words that I love just for how precise they can be, but if the words you’re using are by-and-large unintelligible without an OED to follow along with, are they really worth anyone’s time?
    “Write for your audience”, of course — I imagine the average judge’s vocabulary can blow mine out of the water any day — but overused jargon and unnecessarily dense terminology has always rubbed me the wrong way.

  6. Michael Farris says

    It’s official! I’m a moron!!!!
    I recognized a few and could give half-assed definitions of some of those. I guess it’s time to pick up the pieces and try to carry on, somehow.

  7. Hi Steve- I thought you might be interested in Maksim Grek-2.

  8. overused jargon and unnecessarily dense terminology has always rubbed me the wrong way.

    I’m with Mike on this one. An incredibly tough list I won’t say how many I got other than it is less than I expected.

  9. do you think that obscure vocabulary has actual merit?
    Depends what you mean by “merit.” As I said in my post, these are “words you’ll never have a use for,” and I’d be outraged if someone used them on an actual vocabulary test (in a school, say) — aside from “nonce” and maybe “chiaroscuro,” there’s no particular reason to know them. But from my lexicomanic point of view, the more words, the better, and I always enjoy finding new ones, however recondite. But for heaven’s sake don’t take Zangrilli’s “scoring” seriously (I presume he meant it as a joke) — if you know more than a couple of these, you have an impressive vocabulary!

  10. Hmm, “nonce,” “chiaroscuro,” and “purlieu” were the only ones I knew — and I agree with elck that 3 out of 18 definitely equates to duncehood.

  11. Jim should get at least one right. I suspect he’ll actually do much better then me. (Besides that, I also knew “nonce”…)

  12. Five and a half.
    It’s more impressive and useful to make up new words …

  13. Google hits (many are only listed in law dictionary web sites):
    Algid – 6,900
    Decurtate – 2,240
    Dehors – 1,600,000 (mostly French sites)
    Exigible – 189,000
    Encincture – 708
    Asseverational – 165
    Chiaroscuro – 89,700 (My wife knew this one from art/painting.)
    Solatium – 6,480
    Isthmian – 31,800 (surname of a famous soccer player?)
    Anent – 32,200 (software company, web domain name)
    Sockdolager – 2,790 (#1 hit: “weird words” website.)
    Nonce – 163,000
    Purlieu – 15,900
    Gallimaufry – 15,600 (Jim isn’t #1… another blog.)
    Perscrutation – 805
    Longiloquent – 95!!! (#1 hit: “No matching definitions were found”)
    Integument – 56,700
    Asthenic – 6,770

  14. Michael Farris, you’re not alone. Dunces of the world, unite, I say.
    I only got Asthenic because it’s a part of the “Asthenic syndrome”, title of iconic Kira Muratova film.
    Chiaroscuro is in my professional vocabulary, and Gallimaufry sounds close (and means the same) to Russian “galimat’ya”.
    And none of those “nonce”s.
    So there.

  15. Isthmian: name of English regional soccer league (founded beginning C20th) – which explains the news- and fansite-generated hits.
    One of those classically-related sporting terms like “Corinthian” and “Spartan” – but the Isthmian League is currently camouflaged by the corporate sponsor’s name. O tempora! O mores!

  16. Four I could define, one I could have guessed correctly, three more I recognized as words (one of which I knew, in principle, but for some reason wasn’t sure of, despite being aware of the film title and recognizing it as the base of “neurasthenia”).

  17. Maine (“Ancient Law”) wrote a wonderful page about the way much of early English law is written neither in Latin, French, nor English, but in a bastard English heavily larded with Norman-French terms whose technical meaning might not be the same as the original French meaning. His summary was something “Good came from this, and harm”.
    Flann O’Brein wrote a hilarious parody of legal English. It’s so good that I have no idea whether it’s really a parody or not.
    The stuff he writes about steam engines is the same — he uses a lot of technical terminology which Google tells me was really used once, but whether he’s using these words meaningfully or not I can’t tell. What a guy!

  18. When I said “no more than half” above, it was technically accurate, but the words which I know or am even willing to guess on are seven. I’m not taking the goddamn test. No way.

  19. Cryptic Ned says

    Is “purlieu” the same thing as “purview”?

  20. No. A purlieu is a (familiar or outlying) place; a purview is a range or scope. (“That does not come within my purview” is a jurisdictional statement; “…does not come within my purlieu” is a geographical one.)

  21. “Nonce,” of course, has a radically different meaning in colloquial British speech. As evidenced by the popular quiz, “Nonce or Baby Sitter?” – although it is unclear if the good Judge is aware of that one.

  22. Great heavens. I certainly wasn’t.

  23. Despite our (hopefully transient) server problems, I’d love it if Zizka would join Monkeyfilter.
    Yes, I would.

  24. Just as long as he doesn’t cut down on his commenting here.

  25. dungbeattle says

    I be standink in the corner with me ‘at hon, readink the enquirer,me stop that and start reading the google.
    Thanks for the INsite, still like reading this insightful and informative page despite my less than noble hIQ mind.

  26. Thank you for taking the Judge Selya challenge.
    This is an honest group. Most lawyers do not disclose how they fared against the Champ.

  27. Oh boy. My dad’s a lawyer. That explains everything. He used to talk about “transpontine utterances” and “lapidiary prose” and make me go to the dictionary to look the words up if I said I didn’t understand them.
    Eleven. “Integument” was one of his favourites. And I’m very surprised “longiloquent” has the fewest google hits.

  28. Hi, your website is interesting. I enjoy reading it.
    I am not a native speaker and I would like to ask one question. The word “decurtate” – means to cut short but in English lang “curtate” itself means “to cut short” and “de” is a pref. to make the following words as opposite or to make it degrade/declass. I hope you can explain why “decurtate” means to cut short?

  29. Hi Sharon! The Latin prefix de- has a wide range of meanings, many of which have continued in English; the OED gives:
    1. Down, down from, down to (eg, depend)
    2. Off, away, aside (eg, decline; this is where they include decurtate)
    3. Down to the bottom, completely; hence thoroughly on and on, away; also methodically, formally (eg, declaim)
    4. In a bad sense, so as to put down or subject to some indignity (eg, deceive)
    That’s all before we get to ‘undoing or reversing the action of a verb,’ which we think of as the primary meaning because it’s become productive in French and therefore English. I hope this helps; feel free to ask more questions!

  30. The OED has updated the purlieu entry, and the longwinded and snooty (“erroneous alteration”) etymology I quoted in the post has been replaced by:

    Etymology: < Anglo-Norman puralee, puralé, purallé, pouralee purallee n., with elision of the medial vowel and alteration after lieu n. or its French etymon. Compare later purallee n. 2.

    I’m surprised I didn’t follow the story to the history of purallee, the source word, which is at least as interesting (entry updated September 2007):

    Etymology: < Anglo-Norman puralee, puralé, purallé, poralé, poralee, pouralee, etc., pacing, measuring (late 13th cent. or earlier; compare Old French poralee journey), drawing of boundaries (late 13th cent. or earlier), bounds, limit (1377 or earlier), tract of land between the wider bounds of a forest and the restricted bounds as fixed by perambulation (second half of the 14th cent. or earlier) < puraler to bring about (c1170 or earlier), to bring to a conclusion (c1170 or earlier), to perambulate, measure (c1230 or earlier) < pur pur- prefix + aler to go (see allons int.); compare Old French poraler, pouraler, puraler to travel through (early 13th cent. or earlier), to pursue (a person or thing), to search for (a person or thing) (early 13th cent. or earlier), also in Old French (with prefix-substitution: see per- prefix) as paraler. Compare post-classical Latin porale, porallum, purale, puralea, purialea (from 12th cent. in British sources in sense 1), porellia (1413 in a British source in sense 2). Compare also post-classical Latin perambulatio perambulation n. Compare later purlieu n.
    The extension of sense from sense 1 to sense 2 may have come about as a result of a popular use of the term. The development is paralleled in Anglo-Norman puralee, etc., and in both post-classical Latin porale, etc., and perambulatio (see perambulation n.). With sense 2 compare earlier purlieu n. 1.

  31. January First-of-May says

    Nonce – current occasion, time being

    The only meaning of nonce I knew was “a word made up for the context”. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the meaning you describe, and from the Google hits I’m unconvinced it exists as stated.

    I recognized gallimaufry from a blog commonly cited on LH (Uncle Jazzbeau’s, I believe?), and I would have guessed isthmian if I hadn’t thought it was something more legalistic than that. Other than those, yeah, dunce.

  32. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the meaning you describe, and from the Google hits I’m unconvinced it exists as stated.

    You’re absolutely right; I seem to have made up a nonexistent noun based on my understanding of the phrase “for the nonce,” which is actually a variant or alteration of various OE adverbial phrases. Maybe I’ll make a post of it.

  33. Trond Engen says

    A nonce nonce.

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