Saturday 19 June 2010

The Words of Anthony Burgess

I pride myself on having a good vocabulary. I suspect I'm not alone in this. Indeed the drooling madman lurking in the ill-lit concrete underpass probably prides himself on his vocabulary. But it is rare for me (and presumably not so rare for the drooling lurker) to come upon a word in a book which is unfamiliar and indeed downright unknown. Rarer still to come across so many such words in one book that I begin to write them down and even, gasp, overcome my habitual sloth and actually look the damned things up in the dictionary. I have a great dictionary, a brainy brawny monster permanently crouching on my (oval, glass, space age bachelor pad) coffee table. It's the Oxford Dictionary of English and it weighs a ton and costs £40 — worth every penny (I got mine for free). I just love this book. But since it weighs a ton, and it's buried under a bunch of other books on the coffee table (oval, glass, etc), it's quite a gala occasion when I crack it open. Often this is when I have a list of words to look up, from a book by a writer who is more well read than me or maybe just more pretentious. The first writer to get me keeping lists was Umberto Eco. Primarily from Foucault's Pendulum. As I recall the marvelous Name of the Rose didn't spring so many new words on me. Or maybe I just didn't write them down. More recently, Anthony Burgess has been keeping me busy. Earthly Powers threw up quite a haul. Here are just the highlights. Hermeneutic means interpretative or explanatory. Oneiric is of, or suggestive of, dreams. An epigone (or epigon) is a copycat or an inferior imitator of some distinguished writer or artist or musician. I like that one and I'm thinking of ways to use it right now. A myrmidon is a faithful follower who carries out orders without question. Marmoreal means resembling marble in smoothness, whiteness or hardness. I immediately thought of thighs, for some reason. An apothegm (or, more alarmingly, apophthegm) is a terse, witty, instructive saying; a maxim. Eupeptic means having good digestion; happy. On the other hand rebarbative means unattractive, objectionable (from the Old French se rebarber, which means to be in agressive confrontation, chin to chin, or literally beard to beard). Panglossian is optimistic whatever the circumstances, after Pangloss the tutor in Voltaire's Candide. And my absolute favourite, proleptic. This means anticipating. The example in my dictionary was great and rang with drama: "He was a dead man when he walked into the room." Lastly there is, perhaps all too appropriately, pleonastic. Which means, verbose, using more words than necessary to convey the meaning of something. All of these beauties have just given the spell checker a proper nervous break down. I would love to say I was dropping them all regularly in daily discourse. But, to be honest, of that list the only ones I've really retained in my memory so far are marmoreal (those thighs), the wonderful rebarbative and of course proleptic. Recently (see 13 June 2010) Burgess was up to his old tricks again, and I emerged from his Malaysian Trilogy with another exotic horde. Here's the highlights of that haul. As usual I didn't write down the first few because frankly I was hoping they'd eventually stop. But when they didn't I sighed and took my notebook out (my trusty Moleskin cahiers journal with the handy pocket at the back for tickets, etc) and began to make notes. It's been so long since I read the book I have no idea of where the words appeared or how they were used. But I've got page numbers written beside the words so I can go back and look at how they were used in context — if I can be arsed. First up is the Spanish sounding seigniory. It turns out to mean a feudal lordship. And it's actually from Old French again, seignorie. , Next is the naughtily amusing sounding crapula. Can it possibly live up to our expectations? It turns out to be Latin. The only English form is crapulent, relating to drunkenness. From the Latin crapula, which means inebriation, from a Greek word, which I can't yet render in this typeface, that means "drunken headache". Magic! Then there's vaccine. Hang on, hang on, of course I know that meaning. But Burgess is using it as an adjective! So let's see what the Oxford has to say about that. My guess is that it's something like bovine. Yep. It means cowlike. Now here come a couple of real corkers, exiguity and rhotacismus. My money is on exiguity being something like urgency. Nope, way off. It actually refers to a very small amount. From the Latin exiguus for scanty. Rhotacismus? I'm not going to hazard any guesses after that bruising defeat. Flipping through the pages of the Oxford Dictionary of English we discover that it's quite technical and to do with phonetics and the precise pronunciation of a vowel (to "reflect a following r" as in farm or bird, if you must know). A bit disappointing that, except perhaps to the linguistic experts among us, and maybe the lurking drooler in the underpass. Finally there was once again our old friend proleptic. Well, thanks Mr Burgess. This was just a selection you understand. My notebook is bursting with other specimens. I might post about a few more, if I think I can endure the pain of learning something new.

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