30 January 2023

Word salad? Dig in.

I fell in love with words at an early age.  I don’t just mean a love of literature, but of the individual words themselves.  One strong influence was all the adventure books from the late Victorian and early 20th century passed down from my father and grandfather that I devoured like giant bowls of buttered popcorn. 

They were written in the style of the 19th century, which leaned toward the purple and prolix.  Ornate language peppered with words you’d never see in contemporary literature, much less hear in everyday conversation.  I’d look up their meaning in my brother’s exhausted Merriam-Webster’s, and catalog the definition in my tender memory.

I also used quite a number of these forgotten words and usages in my earliest writing, much to its detriment.  Few high school English teachers had ever heard of Stygian darkness or a flexile snake.  Or would approve of a stern expression being described at a stately countenance, or a homeless guy on a street corner as a mendicant.  But I did.

By the way, Victorian writers often interchanged “he exclaimed” with “he ejaculated.”  Even as a junior writer I knew this was an anachronistic usage best avoided. 

It wasn’t until I started reading Hemingway, that god of succinct and efficient prose, that it dawned on me:  big words – worse, obsolete words – make you sound ridiculous and pretentious.  This was somewhat countered by James Joyce, who used every word in the language, and conjured a few neologisms of his own, but did so with such poetical brilliance that few griped about it.  Not being Joyce, I’d simply choose to pop in a bit of obscure vocabulary every once in a while, and wait for the editors to circle it and write, “Huh?”

I’m not the first logophile, by any means.  William Buckley famously confounded even hyper-educated PBS viewers with the sweep of his lexicographical panache, often insulting his guests on Firing Line without a breath of reproach, since they’d have no idea what he just called them.  Shakespeare is not only the Greatest English Writer of All Time, his vocabulary is still thought to be the largest ever recorded.  And this without Google, or dictionaries for that matter.  But I’d also commend modern writers such as Anthony Burgess, Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates and Christopher Hitchens as no slouches in this department.

English has been described as a whoreish language, in that it will copulate and reproduce with every other language on earth without shame or regret.  That’s how we ended up with so many words, so many derivations, such richness of expression.  The French, of all people, find this tendency unseemly, and try to block outside influence, which is one reason why English is now the closest thing we have to a common world tongue. The new Lingua Franca. 

With such an enormous and diverse palette to choose from, it takes discipline to select words that get the immediate job done, though I can’t resist the occasion when a big, fat, juicy splotch of verbal obscurity seems like just the right thing.  It may not always serve the purpose of my writing, but it’s fun. 

Even ineluctable. 



  1. Oh, I just love "a big, fat, juicy splotch of verbal obscurity" - and I too can hardly resist. Occasionally I put in a character (Mr. Oines, Chevalier – that’s Knight Errant – for the Ancient Benevolent Order of the Ingennavn Society, of "The Closing of the Lodge") whose mouth I can deliberately stuff full of it, because it's just right.
    I grew up in a house which had a Webster's unabridged dictionary, as well as the Complete Sherlock Holmes, and between the two I fell in love with words, too. They're great!

    1. We kept a family dictionary handy to decide bets on definitions. If a debate sprung up at the dinner table, my brother would say "Window's open," and run for the Merriam-Webster's. I also had, still have, an unabridged Sherlock Holmes, with the original illustrations. Read them all during the pandemic, for about the 1000th time.

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn30 January, 2023 13:06

    In the '60s, along with fishnet pantyhose & peacock feather earrings, metal or plastic buttons with (hopefully) clever sayings were popular. "Eschew obfuscation" was one of my favorites!

    1. Elizabeth, here's another served with Reagan jelly beans: Illegitimi non carborundum.

    2. Whenever I see "eschew", I'm moved to floss.

  3. Re French and diplomacy, ever since Louis XIV, French has been considered the language of international diplomacy. I made sure I learned to read French fluently back in grad school to able to read diplomatic papers from the 19th century in Indochina.

  4. Vive le fran├žais! (Though I still think they have too many vowels

  5. Leigh, don't know Curwood, but read all those other guys, in particular Edgar Rice Burroughs. Every book, multiple times. I have the original set my grandfather bought as each book came out.


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