I’m in the middle of reading a lovely little book called Ex Libris, a book about books by a booklover (Anne Fadiman). Now this woman is well-read, and like most people who read broadly, her vocabularly is impressive. Most of the new words I come across in her writing I can make out to some degree and keep reading without heading for the dictionary. In one chapter she actually takes on the issue of vocabularly when she pulls out new words that excited and daunted her in a book called The Tiger in the House by Carl Van Vechten. Words that sent Fadiman to the dictionary included: kakodemon, opopanax, retromingent, paludal and calineries. Words I can hardly pronounce, let alone figure out what they mean. Fadiman’s chapter was entitled ‘The Joy of Sesquipedalians’. (Sesquipedalian can either be used as a noun, to mean a long word, or the act or practice of using long words, or it can be used as an adjective to describe a word or a person who uses long words.)
Personally, I certainly wouldn’t use the word ‘joy’ to describe how I feel when I am reading and come across long or difficult words. Maybe I am just lazy. I guess if I am honest it can be fun to head for the dictionary and find out what a new word means. But I always struggle to remember it and that frustrates me. This is particularly so when there are several words in one peice of writing. It makes me falter in my reading and means I can’t sink into the words and let them effortlessly dissolve into meaning as my eyes run over the type.
This is what happened to me when I began to read Jonathan Raban’s recent article in the London Review of Books – Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill – a peice on Sarah Palin. (The title is what the Alaskan Wildlife Alliance’s director says is Palin’s motto.) I stumbled in the first sentence with the word ‘Poujadism’. I could ascertain that it must have been some political leader or figurehead in France, but that was about all and I needed to know to really understand what Raban was saying. Trip one to the dictionary. The word was not there. OK – wikipedia. Poujad was a populist politician in France in the mid 20th Century. Continue reading. Second sentence, flounder on ‘paysan’. Dictionary – not there again! This time Wiktionary assists. ‘Paysan’ is a noun meaning a peasant or somebody who lives in the country. (French again – maybe Raban had just been reading about the French peasantry in the 1940s or something.). I make it through to the second paragraph and hit the word ‘ukases’, which to my relief is in the dictionary and is the plural for arbitrary command (or an edict of Tssarist Russian government).
So far I am feeling annoyed that Raban had to subject me to his far superior vocabularly, or that he was writing with one hand on the pen and the other thumbing through the theasaurus. And I usually enjoy his articles so much. I know, I only have myself to blame. If my own vocab was better I wouldn’t have had any problems getting started. But anyway, to my great delight, things then improve markedly.
The article about Palin is well-researched, interesting, and once past the first two paragraphs, a smooth read. And Raban is certainly no fan of the Republican’s vice-presidential candidate. Unfortunately I can’t put the link to the article up here as you have to pay. But I can give you my favourite lines, which also highlight how wonderful Raban’s writing can be, not to mention how scathing of Palin:
Transcripts and videos from her time in Alaska show her parlaying the barest minimum of rhetorical and intellectual resources into a formidable electoral weapon. The least one can say of her is that she quickly learned how to make the most of herself.
What is most striking about her is that she seems perfectly untroubled by either curiosity or the usual processes of thought… Palin never thinks. Instead, she relies on a limited stock of facts, bright generalities and pokerwork maxims, all as familiar and well-worn as old pennies. Given any question, she reaches into her bag for the readymade sentence that sounds most nearly proximate to an answer, and, rather than speaking it, recites it, in the upsy-downsy voice of a middle-schooler pronouncing the letters of a word in a spelling bee. She then fixes her lips in a terminal smile.
Fantastic. How cleverly Raban crafts his words to paint a rich picture of Palin. Now I am feeling the joy that Fadiman speaks of in her adulation of long words. Except my joy doesn’t rest on the length of the words, rather the way they are put together to construct a representation of reality that has meaning for me. And I guess the occcasional dip into the dictionary (or wiktionary) has only got to be good for me on my lifelong journey of exploring the wonderful world of words. Before you know it, I will be reeling off sesquipedalians like a lexicographer. Or maybe not – new words can be fun but I also quite like being easily understood.