April 1, 2008

The Last Vocabulary List You'll Ever Need

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was a student at the University of Oregon, I usually had an hour or more in between classes; I tried to set up my schedule those days so I had 90-minute classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays (giving me five days off a week), and no classes that were back to back, allotting at least 50 minutes to wandering campus on days when it didn't rain.

Eventually, I would find a place to sit that allowed the perfect vantage point for stealing looks at some heedless college girl, each one gorgeous in her own way, minding her business in a quiet corner or on an exclusive patch of dry grass. When I finally gained the faculty for concentration, I would write, more often than not stringing together words into god-awful poems that I used to call "word paintings," which gave the formless, unfocused dribble an excuse for taking up space on a perfectly good blank piece of paper.

In those days, I carried a small notebook in my back pocket, spiral-bound at the top, perfect for taking notes during the interviews I conducted for the sports page of the now-defunct Springfield News. (Incidentally, Simpsons creator Matt Groening is from Oregon, and this Springfield looks conspicuously similar to the "Springfield" Homer and his family call home - complete with the industrial plant in the middle of town, only in the real Springfield, Oregon [I still can't believe they named Springfield, Vermont as the official home of The Simpsons] it's a logging mill rather than a nuclear plant) I also used the tiny notebook to jot down thoughts I went over later on some rainy day with enough time passing between writing it and reading it to make organization an exercise in self-indulgence.

One of the ideas I scrupulously followed was to write down every word I could not clearly define in less than five seconds, then go back later, collect all the words on one piece of paper, look them up in the dictionary and make a vocabulary list. I've actually been successful at doing this, at least off and on, over the years.

The reason I'm even bringing this up is because I was reading comedian Marc Maron's Web site tonight, and I came across a word that I had never before seen or heard used in a sentence or otherwise.

The offending word? Aggrandize.

Now, Dictionary.com defines aggrandize as a verb used with an object that has three distinct meanings:

1) To widen in scope; increase in size or intensity; enlarge; extend
2) To make great or greater in power, wealth, rank or honor
3) To make (something) appear greater

The word also has two related forms, aggrandizement and aggrandizer, both nouns. Interestingly, aggrandizer is the only form not recognized by Blogspot's spell checker.

My point here is that after about 12 years of keeping track of words I don't know, I've come to the conclusion that there are thousands of words in the English language, and I'm sure this is true of other dictions, that are useless, and used for no other reason - at least none that I can think of - other than to make oneself appear smarter than the next person.

Using one of my old, crumpled lists, which is actually turning yellow from age, I can give you an example of useless words each starting with a different letter of the alphabet, but I found one on the Internet at The Phrontistery that even better illustrates my point.

Here's today's advice from The Wagger - don't expand your vocabulary!

You're wasting your time, unless you are such a narcissist that being book smart is important to you.

If you can communicate well enough to get a plate of food placed in front of you when you're hungry, to let someone know you love them and understand when someone is saying they love you, to find and complete work, to make sure you have a roof over your head, even if it's only for one night, or to pray, if you're into that sort of thing, then you already know enough words for one lifetime.

You could be doing something else, anything else, like reading to your kids, staring out the window at a passing cloud, doodling while wasting time or cell phone minutes, or drawing on the sidewalk with colored chalk.

So, readers of The Wagger, below I give you the last vocabulary lesson you should ever take.

And no, I'm not throwing away my vocabulary lists. Hell, they took too much time to tally. (In case you're confused, that last sentence is sarcastic irony.)

Enjoy ... but not too much.

Aegrotat - A medical certificate of illness excusing student's sickness. Rarely used today except in Britain, and then only in the context of degrees and courses considered as passed by a student too ill to finish the appropriate material. Aegrotat is the only surviving remnant of the Latin verb aegrotare.

Boustrophedon - Of writing, alternating left to right then right to left. Not a word with a great deal of utility, unless you study ancient inscriptions, but very descriptive. I like the metaphor of an ox ploughing the field back and forth from one direction to the other.

Carfax - A place where four roads meet; an intersection of main roads at the center of a town. Despite its appearance, it has nothing to do with cars or faxes, but is an anglicisation of the older Latin term. Now largely forgotten except in a few place names in the UK, but there's no other word to represent the main intersection in a town.

Delenda - Things to be deleted or destroyed. The term is best known from the Latin phrase "Delenda est Carthago", or "Carthage must be destroyed", spoken by Cato the Elder in 157 B.C. after perceiving that Carthage might pose a threat to the Roman Republic. In this age of censors and shredders, delenda is rare, but most definitely not at risk of being deleted from dictionaries.

Enchiridion - A book carried in the hand for reference, especially one used for music or theology. Etymologically, it's a book that is meant to be able to be carried in one's hand, which today probably encompasses most books, but, ironically enough, not all 'handbooks'. What a strange language we have ...

Famulus - A private secretary or attendant. Used especially to describe an assistant to a magician or scholar. I particularly like this word not only because it sounds more refined than 'lackey' or 'Hey, you', but because of its applicability to graduate students in a modern context.

Growlery - A retreat for times of ill humor. This term has largely become obsolete, which is strange, given that so many people seem to have a place to go when they are in a bad mood - a place to be alone and think. It's similar in meaning to the Latin-derived sanctum sanctorum, with the added connotation that the individual in question is going to the place to be alone while upset.

Haecceity - The aspect of existence on which individuality depends; the hereness and nowness of reality. First coined by the philosopher Duns Scotus, haecceity is that sense one gets of being in the present tense, the pure experience of a single moment in time. No other word has such subtle connotations. In addition, it sounds and looks very interesting.

Imbroglio - An intricate, confusing or disturbing situation; a confused mass or heap. Imbroglio is close to predicament in meaning, only with a remarkable sound (especially its Italian soft 'g') and the added connotation of confusion and entanglement. It is to be preferred enormously over the anglicised 'embroilment.'

Jeremiad - A lamentation or prolonged complaint; an angry or cautionary harangue. Poor Jeremiah! He writes one complaining letter to God, whines about the state of the world, gets it published in the most popular book of all time, and his name is forever attached to the concept of complaining and lamenting one's fate. I think there's a moral message in there somewhere, but I haven't figured out yet what it is.

Kenspeckle - Easily recognizable or distinguishable; conspicuous. This word sounds very interesting, and is all the more remarkable because it is etymologically unrelated to the similar-sounding and synonymous conspicuous (Latin con, an intensive, and specere, to look). Kenspeckle is mostly used in Scotland and northern England these days; perhaps it should enjoy greater currency.

Lucubration - Study or composition lasting late into the night. This is a fantastic word for the activities of 'night owls' such as myself, without synonym or parallel and having a striking sound. Though it's mostly used facetiously today, I see no reason why lucubration should not be restored to its proper glory. Let's all help take back the night!

Mumpsimus - A view stubbornly held even when shown to be wrong; one holding such a view. President George W. Bush immediately comes to mind. In an old story, it's said that an ignorant priest, knowing the sound of the Latin Mass but not speaking the language, said the meaningless 'mumpsimus' instead of 'sumpsimus'. When corrected, he is said to have replied, "I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus". This learned joke has lasted five centuries in the form of this fine-sounding word.

Nepenthe - Something, such as a drink or a drug, capable of making one forget suffering. First mentioned in Homer's Odyssey as a potion capable of erasing all bad memories. By extension, the use of nepenthe today largely reflects the reputed powers of alcohol to get rid of the memory of one's woes. Whether or not this actually works (other than temporarily), the word is marvellous.

Omphaloskepsis - Navel-gazing. This extraordinarily rare word is not normally used literally, but instead to refer to the sort of introspective self-analysis all too common in academia and pop psychology. A favorite pastime of postmodern philosophers, especially when used facetiously to refer to the habit of mentally considering everything while ignoring the real world.

Pilgarlick - A poor wretch; used whimsically and self-pityingly to refer to oneself. Originally, pilgarlick was used to refer to a bald or balding person (hence its etymology, one's bald head looking like peeled garlic). Since then, it has come to be used mostly in self-reference, when one is lamenting one's lot in life. There truly needs to be a term like this in common use.

Quincunx - An arrangement of five things with four at the corners of a square and one in the middle. The unique meaning and peculiar sound of this word, coupled with the fact that it is a pattern seen on cards and dice, are the reasons for it making my list. Such a symbol was at one time used for the Roman fraction 5/12, thus explaining its etymology.

Redivivus - Resuscitated, come to life again. There are plenty of words to describe coming back to life (renaissance, resurrection), but none so pleasant-sounding as this one. Used largely in literary and formal contexts, it is taken straight from the Latin term of the same meaning. It is, I think, an ideal term to be used in place of 'renaissance' to refer to things newly restored to popularity.

Spatchcock - To insert into a text too hurriedly or inappropriately; a fowl stuffed and cooked immediately after killing. This is probably my favorite word of all time. Though there's little use for it any more as a noun, the idea of hurriedly killing, stuffing and cooking a bird has enormous metaphorical value. As a verb, spatchcock is a term that should be picked up and used by every editor who has ever had to read a manuscript that has been prepared in such a manner.

Tregetour - A juggler, trickster or deceiver. Originally used to describe a type of jester or juggler, tregetour, though now archaic, eventually came to mean someone who uses cunning tricks to deceive others (sometimes but not limited to stage performances). A useful poetic word for a magician, but also a more pleasant-sounding name for a huckster or con man.

Ultracrepidate - To criticize beyond sphere of one’s knowledge. This very interesting-sounding and useful word for a common practice has a very interesting etymology. In a Roman story, a cobbler criticised the sandals in a painting by the painter Apelles, and then complained about further parts of the work, to which Apelles is said to have replied, "Ne sutor ultra crepidam", or, roughly, "The cobbler must not go beyond the sandal". As true today as it was then.

Vilipend - To despise; to make light of; to disparage mockingly. Related to vile and vilification, vilipend is a word that implies disparagement, slander or criticism, but usually with a fairly light and mocking tone. A particularly good term to refer to a certain style of literary and academic mockery - and God knows there are enough people out there who need to be vilipended.

Widdershins - Counterclockwise; in the contrary direction. You might ask why I'd include this obsolete adverb (used only facetiously and in some Scottish dialects), when it has a perfectly good synonym. To this, I point out that the day may soon come when clocks with hands are obsolete, at which point we may need to revive this word to alleviate the confusion. Also spelled and pronounced withershins.

Xenium - A gift made to a guest or ambassador; any compulsory gift. As I'm writing, birthdays coming up are reminding me of the necessity of a word to reflect a gift you're obliged to give rather than one you really want to. Whenever you go to the wedding of a stranger or an enemy, think of this word and smile. My gift of 'xenium' to you is most definitely desired.

Yare - Marked by quickness and agility; nimble; prepared; easily handled. It's basically obsolete anymore, but this fantastic short little gem is very useful. It reflects the sense of preparedness and mental quickness one feels from time to time - the feeling that one is ready to face the world and its challenges, and that anything is possible. Try it, use it - I think you'll like it.

Zetetic - Proceeding by inquiry; a search or investigation; a skeptical seeker of knowledge. A term originally used to refer to Pyrrhonists, a group of ancient Greek skeptics, it has come to mean both the process of inquiry and one who so proceeds. A zetetic is thus a sort of intellectual agnostic who, while seeking greater truths, is always wary of falsehood.

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