Put in a Good Word for Me

I enjoy rare words.  Here are a few that strike me as pretty or that might be of general interest, followed by a discussion of the pros and cons of using obscure words in prose:

Accismus: the act of feigning disinterest in something while actually desiring it

Autolatrist: self-worshipper

Banausic: related to or concerned with earning a living (useful for describing writers’ day jobs)

Bloviate: to speak or write in a verbose, pompous, overbearing way

Dysteleology: the belief that life has no inherent goal or purpose

Eccedentisiast: someone who fakes a smile (useful for describing certain service workers, who get paid to beam at you)

Eisegesis: distortion of a textual interpretation in order to support a preconceived idea

Eleutheromania: a great desire for freedom

Empleomania: mania for holding public office

Ergophobia: morbid fear of work

Fysigunkus: someone who’s devoid of curiosity

Gymnophoria: a sense that someone is imagining you naked or mentally undressing you

Kakistocracy: government by the worst/least qualified

Kakorrhaphiophobia: morbid fear of failure

Lalochezia: gaining emotional relief by using vulgar language

Limerance: romantic love combined with a deep need to have one’s feelings reciprocated

Logorrhea: “diarrhea of the mouth”; excessive and often nonsensical talkativeness

Nepenthe: something to cause oblivion in the face of pain or sorrow

Niveous: of, like, or relating to snow

Mumpsimus: someone who continues doing something wrong even though he knows he’s doing it wrong, just because he’s always done it that way; also, a custom or idea that’s adhered to even after it’s been shown to be unreasonable

Philosophunculist: someone who puts on learned airs to impress others (as opposed to a humble collector of words who only wants to share a few of his favorites)

Procrustean: of, like, or relating to the mythological bandit Procrustes, who would put his victims in an iron bed and either stretch them or cut off pieces of them until they fit it exactly (useful for describing the cultures of certain corporations and schools, in which diverse people are forced into an arbitrary mold)

Quomodocunquize: to make money in any way possible

Terpsichorean: of, like, or relating to dancing

Ultracrepidarian: someone who judges, offers opinions, or speaks beyond his area of competence

Uxorious: an adjective used to describe someone who dotes on his wife

Widdiful: deserving to be hanged (applicable to many empleomaniacs and to quite a few who quomodocunquize)

Zoilist: someone who likes to criticize everyone and everything

*          *          *

I’ve never used the words above in anything I’ve written, even though I like them and most of them have no synonyms.  But is it okay to use words like these when you write?  Some authors frequently use words you’ve never seen before and will never see again.  There are even writers who coin new words—and sometimes those coinages become standard.  According to the critic Harold Bloom, Shakespeare employed about 21,000 different words in his writings, and, of these, about 1,800 were his own inventions.  The man made up one out of twelve of the words he used!  And many of his coinages are now legal tender (e.g., amazement, circumstantial, dishearten).

The trouble with employing words of your own invention, of course, is that if context or etymology doesn’t make the definition sufficiently clear, your reader will never be able to guess what you mean.  But what about existing words that just don’t turn up very often?  Many writers, especially literary writers, have a fondness for unusual words.  Readers often fail to share this affection, however.  I enjoy running across a word I don’t know, but many readers resent having either to run to the dictionary or plod on without a firm idea of the author’s meaning: rare words can kick a reader out of your story.

So should a writer indulge his fondness for unusual words or should he spare the reader?  Faulkner said of Hemingway, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”  Hemingway retorted, “Poor Faulkner.  Does he really think big emotions come from big words?  He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words.  I know them all right.  But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”  Who’s right?

For the sake of argument, I’d say use the word that best conveys your meaning and upholds the cadence of your sentence and the tone of your prose, even if it leaves your reader scratching his head.  For every reader who resents a novel word, there’s one who appreciates the chance to expand his vocabulary, and there’s another who knows the word already or can decrypt it through its etymology.  Literary readers in particular often take aesthetic pleasure in seeing language used dexterously; watching a writer wield a rare word can be like seeing a dancer perform a difficult step.  But I’d qualify this by adding that a writer should let aesthetic considerations be decisive, and shouldn’t shoehorn unusual diction into her prose just to show off her vocabulary or champion a word.

Don’t mistake this for a rule, though.  As soon as a writer announces a principle of composition, I lose all respect for his judgment.  The goal of art is beauty.  Get there however you can.

7 comments for “Put in a Good Word for Me

  1. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    October 22, 2014 at 7:09 am

    I saw this list of rare words and wanted to share: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-anthony-jones/forgotten-words_b_5985494.html

  2. Nieves
    July 8, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Funny. The Spanish word for scar is cicatriz… Although English is considered an Anglo-Saxon language, many of the longer words in English actually have a Latin or Greek roots. Here is a list of Greek and Latin roots in English http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Greek_and_Latin_roots_in_English

  3. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    June 2, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    One of my favorites is cicitrix (a scar, but doesn’t it sound so much more brutal and sinister that way?).

    I used to love showing off my vocabulary when I was writing. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest, and one of the little articles pointing out the dangers of showing off your vocabulary at the expense of frustrating your reader. The author made his/her point by constructing a bawdy poem from words he/she dug up out of a 200 year old dictionary of Thieves Cant. I have tried many times to relocate this article so I could cite it properly. It was very memorable, though. The title of the poem was “An inelegant proposal” and it started out with:

    Fusby, let us you and I
    To the buttock-broker hie…

    Yeah, after having to look up 1-2 words every line of that poem in the footnotes, I was cured forever from the desire to show off my more obscure vocabulary in my writing. There are times when an obscure word genuinely seems the right one to use. I do have to keep my audience in mind when I am writing, though. There’s an entire set of vocabulary I can use in my academic writing geared towards people with enough expertise in their fields that I won’t have to define everything that I rarely ever outside of academia. Too much professional jargon (regardless of what profession it is) will make anyone’s eyes glaze over if they are not in your profession.

    One way to deal with this problem is to run your writing through a program to get an estimate of its readability (MS word will do this: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word-help/test-your-document-s-readability-HP010148506.aspx). If the estimate runs higher than the people who are likely to read it, you may need to trim out some of the ten-dollar words, longer sentences, or convoluted sentence structure. That can help in finding the balance between challenging a reader by introducing them to some wonderful new words, and making them throw your book across the room.

    • Ian
      June 3, 2014 at 10:08 am

      It’s “cicatrix,” isn’t it? I looked for An Inelegant Proposal but wasn’t able to find it – it sounds like a fun poem, though. It’s interesting to consider what distinguishes a poem like that from poems like Jabberwocky, which make perfect sense even though half of the words are nonsense.

      Thanks for directing me to Word’s readability assessor. I’ve been having fun with it. According to the program, most of my writing is directed at about the fifth-grade level. Yikes!

  4. Nieves
    May 31, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    I found your blog to be truly gelogenic (laughter provoking) and providing an interesting quodlibet (a nice point to debate). Definitely sapid (interesting) and most veracious (of truthful disposition).
    Having an afflatus (a sudden rush of divine or poetic inspiration) after reading your eloquent notes, I expostulate (reason earnestly) that – although such articulateness have a calefacient (feeling of warmth) and nurturing effect on many writer’s hearts – booklovers often take eloquence of this level as a parisology (deliberate pursuit of ambiguity) and highfalution (pretentiousness).
    In addition, most bibliophiles suffer from ergasiophobia (fear or aversion to work) when it comes to absorbing literary material, and I am not insinuating maladies of medulla oblongata producing any type of oligophrenia (extreme mental retardation), but because articulacy often requires endless review of dictionaries.
    To be fair to book mongers, such singularities of expression often require the assistance of a dragoman (interpreter/guide) to decipher the true meaning in the context, and, let’s face it, that service is hardly available nowadays to commoners like us.
    As for me, I confess I suffer from lethologica (inability to recall the right word), which leaves me in a state of complete lippitude (bleary eye condition) when encountering rich terminology.
    My reply is sincerely not intended as an acharientism (elegantly veiled insult). I neither claim coruscations (flashes of wit) on my side, so kindly do not try to lapidate (stone to death) or defenestrate (throw out the window) me on account of my feedback.
    Excellent blog, Sir Ian. Thank you for sharing.

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