38. Words I had to Look Up

by H. W. Moss

Perhaps it is because I work with words that I want to know what they mean. I enjoy it when an author uses a word I don’t know. The New Yorker is good for that.

However, I don’t want more than one or two per article, because some time around the third literary obfuscation the author is just showing off. Umberto Eco is good for that.

As was William F. Buckley, Jr. I would read an article of his (rarely) and there would be at least three words I did not know. When I looked them up they were almost gratuitous in their usage. In fact, they often turned out to be in alphabetical order as if he opened a dictionary, from left to right, and found words even he did not know, but put them in to bamboozle a reader.

One new word per issue is fine with me. “Obloquy” was a recent one in The New Yorker. But the one that got me good was “chiliast” which derives from “chiliad,” a group of 1000 or a period of 1000 years (believe me, I went from hot to cold, from rice to beans con carne before I looked it up), and refers to the Second Coming, presumably of Christ, but it could be Pepe Lumpopo for all I know.

“I have had enough obloquy for one lifetime,” is attributed to Anthony Eden, Britain’s Foreign Secretary between World Wars One and Two, later Prime Minister. Can you imagine anyone saying that and being understood by listeners? Did everyone know he was complaining, explaining how fed up he was with the verbal abuse and public criticism he had endured?

Sometimes looking up a word has beneficial unforeseeable results. For instance, I found “revenant,” again in The New Yorker, and when the film came out I knew what the title meant. No one else I asked did. This prompted me to see the movie before the Academy Awards were announced.

Nope. I’m not going to tell you if you don’t already know. Go look it up yourself. Then you will understand the film better.

I commonly wake up with a word on my mind, no definition attached. Two examples are contretemps and bricolage. Or I’ll be cooking and a word pops into my head with, “What’s that mean exactly?” or “Is that even a word?”

Originally a fencing term denoting a thrust made at an inopportune moment, today we call an unexpected and unfortunate occurrence a contretemps. But if you really break it down, in the late 17th century it meant ‘motion out of time,’ from contre- ‘against’ + temps ‘time.’ Of course, I knew what it meant plus I had already parsed it in French by the time I had my first cup of coffee and the computer turned on, but I had no idea the source or origin. So questioning “against time” was the prompt for looking it up.

In art or literature, bricolage is construction or creation from a diverse range of available things. Like this essay.

One grad school professor told us to write down the word “sesquipedalian” because it would be on the exam. Sure enough: Q. What word describes using big words?

I aced that one

During the year I collect in a file called “Words” all those The New Yorker caused me to look up. From the issue dated June 14, 2010, I found agnate — Related on or descended from the father’s or male side. 2. Coming from a common source; akin. A relative on the father’s or male side only.

From Feb. 19 & 26, 2007, I looked up veridical — Speaking the truth. Veracious. Truthfulness. Also looked up recrudescent which means to break out or become active again. From the Latin crudescere, to become raw.

Same issue, I looked up lacunae which is plural and means blank spaces or missing parts. Also a small cavity, pit or discontinuity in an anatomical structure. I recognized it as commonly used to describe worm eaten pages in old books.

Again, that same issue propelled me to look up marcel, marcelled. That means a deep soft wave made in the hair by the use of a heated curling iron. To make a marcel.

Nope. I’m never going to need to know that again.