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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Monday, September 28, 2015

in defense of the 10 dollar word

When I was thirteen, there was nothing I liked better than to peddle my bike to a library near us, look through a random volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, pluck an obscure word at random – something long and spidery – and try to use it at the dinner table, or in talking to friends, which often required seriously distorting the direction of the conversation in order to find occasion to slip it in. 
I still like the OED, but I no longer go to it to find rare words at random. Still, I appreciate a stunner when I come across one. These words were often begotten by obscure old authors and only surfaced once, in their texts, and were fated to be buried without ceremony in some future dictionary and never know the loving clasp of a live tongue. 
It is this history that makes me bristle a bit when I run into complaints about the arcabe vocabulary of some writer or another, where it is maintained that such vocabulary is stuck up, unnecessary, and show-offy. It seems to me that any writer who isn’t being show-offy has mistaken his or her profession: it is definitely show business all the way down.
That doesn’t mean that I am always for the abstruse. There’s a long quarrel about this in english literature. Thomas Nashe, the elizabethan polemicist, made great fun of his the vocabulary of his enemy, another pamphleteer named Gabriel Harvey. He takes two words Harvey employed – entelechy and adoulce – as the occasion for a nice kicking: “with these two Hermophrodite phrases, being half latin and half English, hast thou puld out the very guts of the inckhorne”. In other words, this isn’t writing, its straining. There’s something to that. It is part of the discipline of showing off that it can’t involve straining, because if it does, one’s pretensions turn against one. So much so that the writer will be accused of being pretentious. And it is no use replying that the taboo on pretension stems from a very reactionary sense of social hierarchy, in which those on top are accorded a naturalness that turns those on the bottom trying to work their way up into either outlaws or buffoons. Because by the time you have gotten that analysis off your chest, your audience will have long turned away and followed other things, usually on their cell phones.

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