Saturday, December 03, 2016

`Adscititious Excellence'

A word that stopped and charmed me: adscititious. I recognized it as rooted in Latin but that, and its context in The Rambler #179, published on this date, Dec. 3, in 1751, were of little help as to its meaning. Here’s the paragraph by Johnson in question:

“It seems therefore to be determined by the general suffrage of mankind, that he who decks himself in adscititious qualities rather purposes to command applause than impart pleasure: and he is therefore treated as a man who, by an unreasonable ambition, usurps the place in society to which he has no right. Praise is seldom paid with willingness even to incontestable merit, and it can be no wonder that he who calls for it without desert is repulsed with universal indignation.”

And here is the OED: “Forming an addition or supplement; not integral.” In other words, inessential, added-on, superfluous -- not a word one would use to characterize Johnson, whose life, for reasons both philosophical and financial, was pared to the elemental. The word reminds us of blather and bombast in politics, gingerbread in architecture, accessorizing in fashion, purple in prose, and we’re back to Johnson’s recurrent theme, vanity. In his own Dictionary, he gives the following definition: “that which is taken in to complete something else, though originally extrinsick [sic]; supplemental; additional.” He seems to have been fond of the word. In The Rambler #155 he uses it again: “He that shall solicit the favour of his patron by praising him for qualities which he can find in himself, will be defeated by the more daring panegyrist who enriches him with adscititious excellence.”

Not that the adscititious is always to be scorned. Art is never strictly utilitarian, and a world without the adscititious would be a duller place. The OED’s first citation dates from 1620, and is taken from Bacon’s Instauratio magna (The Great Restoration): “They therefore called this [motion] perpetual and proper . . .and they called the others adscititious.”

The dictionary’s most recent citation, from 2008, serendipitously lead me to a marvelous bookish find: “Crates of chilly hardware—coffee tins of rusty nails and mismatched bolts and nuts . . . and adscititious crap.” This is from William Davies King’s Collections of Nothing (University of Chicago Press), a wonderful book devoted to King’s own collecting mania and accumulation in general. I’m not a collector, and prefer a Spartan aspect to my surroundings, but as a reporter I always enjoyed writing about people who succumbed to the amassing urge. I met collectors of sand, wood, beer cans and the coins and currency issued by leper colonies. All were unusually learned people, even pedantic within their area of specialization, and eager to share the joys of stockpiling.

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