Wednesday, October 24, 2012

`Berthed in the Dictionary'

“I know a word that describes the feeling you have in the roof of your mouth when peanut butter sticks to it, but I will never use it; in fact, I decline to disclose it.”

I’m not certain if this is what William F. Buckley Jr. had in mind, but I’ve learned that the fear of having your soft palate packed with peanut butter is known to psychiatrists with shrinking practices as arachibutyrophobia. The French for “peanuts,” a quintessentially American word, is arachides, and peanut butter is beurre d'arachides. Buckley was famed for his sesquipedalianism (a word I learned from one of his columns decades ago), and the sentence quoted above is from a column titled “The Conflict over the Unusual Word” (collected in Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography, 2004). In it, Buckley qualifies his use of lengthy, rare, obsolete or arcane words.

Every word “berthed in the dictionary,” as he puts it, is there for one of three reasons: an “objective thing or a concept or abstraction” appears and needs a word to identify it (“cyberspace” is his example”); an “artistic hand closed in on what had been a void,” and the word gains currency (“seakindly”); or an “authoritative writer simply uses the word and such is his prestige” that it sticks (“tushery,” coined by Robert Louis Stevenson).

When I encounter a new word, lengthy or not, I like to know what it means and where it comes from. I won’t necessarily use it, in writing or speech, but I’ve grown accustomed to plugging holes in my knowledge of the world. Plain speaking is essential but so, on the right occasions, are eloquence and verbal lushness. Part of linguistic effectiveness is sensitivity to context and audience. When it’s not mere showing off, deployment of obscure words adds a pleasurable texture to poetry and prose – one of many reasons we read Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Browne. A gifted writer commands styles and is not limited to one. In addition, what’s obscure or pretentious to you may be familiar and homely to me.

Noting that Dwight Macdonald in his famous 1962 review of Webster’s Third relegated some words to the “zoo section” of the dictionary, Buckley says “…while one can be very firm in resisting people who spout zoo words, one should be respectful  and patient with those who exercise lovingly the wonderful opportunities of the language.”

On Monday, reading Ink Stone (2003), a collection of poems by Jamie McKendrick, I came upon one titled “Pasodoble.” From the context of the poem, I had no clues. Proper name? A city? Vaguely Spanish-sounding. A step, a pace? Double? I looked it up: a traditional Spanish dance associated with the music played at bullfights. This doesn’t help at all with McKendrick’s poem, but another hole is plugged. Also, while poking around, I came upon a sort-of-sonnet he published last week in the Guardian, “Teazles”:

“Out in the vacant lot to gather weeds
I found these teazles – their ovoid heads
delicately armoured with crowns of thorns.
Arthur, from whom I haven't heard a word
in thirty years, who must be ninety if
he's a day, told me they were used to raise
the nap on the green felt of billiards tables
and, since Roman times, for combing woollen stuff.
He also said their seeds were caviar
to the goldfinch. And then I lost the knife
he'd lent me to cut some – the loss of which
was the cause of grief. In honour of gruff Arthur
I shake the seeds out in our small green patch
and stick the spiky seed heads in a jar.” 

Teazle, or teasle, is a word I wrote about three years ago. Subsequently, in Michael Drayton’s Muses Elizium (1630), I found an amusing use of the word: 

“By stinging Nettles, pricking Teasels
Raysing blisters like the measels.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Doubtless you, and any number of your readers, are familiar with J. Bryan III's Hodgepodge books and Gallimaufry to Go. I have dipped into these commonplace books often over the years for the delightful excursions into obscure words, wry observations, oddities and curiosities. One of my favorites is the trivial fact that in Psalm 46 (King James version), the 46th word in the Psalm is "shake"; counting 46 words from the end of the Psalm is the word "spear." There you have it: Shakespeare. Make of this what you will.

Your mention of the 'pasodoble' brings to mind THE great interpreter of Spanish piano music,the late Alicia De Laroccha.