Words, Great and Diminuitive


“Words are the true adventures of the authentic writer.”¹

Nicolás Gómez Dávila

I recently bought a copy of the 1971 Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, complete with slipcase and magnifying glass. Why a magnifying glass? Because each page has four pages worth of text photo-reduced onto it. This is 8 volumes worth of dictionary in six inches of shelf space. It is possible to read with just my glasses but it feels a bit like “read the smallest line you can” at the optometrist.

It’s not that I didn’t already have a dictionary. I have my old collegiate dictionary, received dutifully as a graduation gift from high school. I have a dictionary app on my phone. I have a dictionary on my laptop as well as the ability to search dozens of online dictionaries. But the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED to its admirers) is the holy grail of English dictionaries, it is not available free online, and I like words.

Several years ago I read Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, written by Ammon Shea. The author read the entire OED (non-compact edition) in a year and chronicled his adventure, including some of the interesting words he encountered. He must enjoy discovering new words as much as I do.

While generally agreeing with William Zinsser’s admonition to short, active prose, I also enjoy finding just the right word for something, even if it’s obscure or archaic. I don’t always use a word once I’ve found it, but it is a comfort to know there is a word out there that means just what I want to say, almost like a spell I could utter to call the thing into existence.

It’s like the difference between Shaker and Chippendale furniture. Either chair will hold you off the floor and both are attractive—the former in its simplicity, the latter in its ornate detail. Neither is wrong; they are different expressions of the function of chair. When I go into my garage woodshop, I gravitate toward Shaker because it is a style I can attain to. When I sit with pen or keyboard, Shaker is oftentimes called for, but it is also gratifying to attempt Chippendale on occasion.

I keep an index file on my desk to jot down new words I learn as I read. If I actually look up every word I encounter that I don’t know, I amass a pretty good collection fairly rapidly. If I review the cards occasionally, I actually learn them. Here are some recent favorites.

Appurtenance: an accessory or other item associated with a particular activity or lifestyle. (My OED is certainly an appurtenance to me.)

Bowdlerize: to expurgate a book or writing by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive. (Named after Thomas Bowdler who is best known for publishing The Family Shakespeare in 1818 in which he bowdlerized the Bard—the OED includes etymology!)

Disquisition: a diligent or systematic search, a treatise or discourse in which a subject is investigated and discussed.

Execration: a curse, a thing devoted to destruction, the opposite of consecration. (Jeremiah 42:18—if God starts throwing this word at you, you’ve blown it big.)

Foxed: of the leaves of books, also of timber discolored by decay, stained with brownish-yellow spots. (This was the first word I looked up in my OED, which I will have you know, is not foxed.)

Matutinal: occurring in or related to the morning.

Pulchritude: beauty. (This word certainly doesn’t sound like its definition, but has become quite popular in my house since I discovered it.)

Sybarite: anyone fond of self-indulgence and luxury.

Even with the OED on my desk and Google at my fingertips, there are still words out there I haven’t found yet. It’s a bit like Dmitri Mendeleev who first organized the periodic table—by arranging the elements according to properties, he identified some “blank spots” where elements ought to be and which were later filled in by other physicists. For example, there ought to be a word that describes the vicissitude between pleonasm and reconditeness that plagues writers. It’s enough to give me a fit of onomatomania. Someday, the word will come.

¹ Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 435


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