A few more words

I own a few sacred words, words of such beauty I desire to be worthy of them. I adore these watery two: lacustrine, of or pertaining to a lake, and pelagic, of or pertaining to the open seas or oceans. The oceans are mighty places, you know, and pelagic fishes must swim faster than their lacustrine kin.

We try to capture our feelings with words, and we think more precisely and deeply with them. Therefore knowing the meaning of bumptious serves well. Yes, we might call someone “pushy,” but bumptious has a hapless and comic, yet grating, quality.

I couldn’t make some of my pet distinctions without existential, which makes me wonder if, as feared English teachers of old implied, a big vocabulary is demonstrably a good thing. Existential holds resonance and romance for me because I struggled through Being and Nothingness (in fear and trembling) in college.

But when we learn others’ beloved words we may spend our whole lives unable to forget them but unable or unwilling to use them. Exhibit A is pusillanimous: cowardly or timid. Mostly the word seems good for humorous applications. Didn’t the Wizard, or was it the Cowardly Lion himself, use it in The Wizard of Oz?

Per existential: some love ontology or ontological—“the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such,” says Dictionary.com; but I can seldom remember the meaning of ontology no matter how many times I look it up. My new digital Oxford English Dictionary adds “essence” helpfully to its definition: “the being or essence of things.”

So when your car tire is flat you have an existential problem to solve, but how you think about that problem may well be ontological. I guess. And we all know the essence of existence is one damn thing after another, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

Then there are words like risible, which I always think means offensive, when instead it means causing or capable of causing laughter. Attenuated, which I associate with “bloated,” means to weaken; so does vitiate. I can never remember that saturnine means slow and gloomy when lugubrious means mournful, dismal, or gloomy—doesn’t it seem that one of these words is unnecessary? I suppose one man is saturnine while another is lugubrious (and, possibly, he’s bumptious as well). My mind flails at such slight differences: there’s insuperable—incapable of being surmounted; an “insuperable barrier”—and ineluctable: incapable of being evaded; inescapable.

An intelligent friend—he earned a doctorate in genetics—doesn’t like writers who use “big words,” he told me recently over lunch. I wonder about the tension there, for both writers and readers. Must a writer hold himself back, not use the precise term because most readers won’t know it? Then I think of David Foster Wallace, who was lavish with hard words; in one of his essays he used piacular, a rare adjective meaning “making or requiring atonement.”

Sometimes it does me good when I’m writing and struggling to open and read part of a book I’ve admired to see how plain most of the language is, how common the words. Like many readers and writers, I presume, I think of the great beauty and emotional effect of a work as a whole, and judge my partial and ongoing efforts harshly in comparison. Literature is made mostly of common material, but precisely used, in new or uncommon combinations.

Still, I’ve got my own lengthening list of interesting words I’d like to use, written down and defined. I review the document sometimes, examine at a word like otiose (serving no practical purpose) and wonder about using it, not to disparage someone’s excuse-making verbiage but to describe a piece of farm machinery, say. Two punchy, colloquial words I’ve admired but not yet used: skeevy—meaning disgusting or sleazy—and pawky, a British adjective meaning shrewd and cunning, often used in a humorous way.

My life mostly lived—I’m middle-aged, which doesn’t really mean “in the middle of life” but “neither young nor old,” on the way to, but not quite identifiable as, elderly—and I’m making lists of toothsome words like a precocious child trying to better himself or like a conceited adolescent hoping to one-up the competition. In a phase where I look up words compulsively in almost everything I read, and then paste their meanings into my personal list, I realize with a certain horror that I’m simply recreating a dictionary. My document is up to twelve pages, but at least it’s customized, a record of my own admiration and yearning.

Surely we’re impoverished without lovely and exact words; perhaps our culture’s coarseness stems in part from its narrowed vocabulary. We use monikers like input and monetize, while better and more beautiful words languish, and some beloved by our educated forebears disappear. Whole worlds of knowledge disappear. It’s bell wether, not weather: a wether, a neutered male sheep, was tame and led the flock, wearing a tinkling brass bell, behind the shepherd. I used to know the nautical definition of chine—where a boat’s bottom meets the side of its hull—without realizing, until I looked it up, perplexed by a writer’s phrase “like a chine of meat,” that it means an animal’s backbone and can also mean a ridge of land.

In an interview with the Paris Review in 1999, William Styron said a writer must love language, implicitly defending his own free use of unusual words. “You have to have a vocabulary,” he added. “So many writers who disappoint me don’t have a vocabulary—they don’t seem to have much feeling for words.”

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