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
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.