All my life I’ve read hoping to find words I don’t know, keeping lists of them and looking them up in a dictionary, where I would then come across more words I’d never seen before. I’ve never read only for pleasure or for information. For me, reading has always been a word-hunting expedition, a lexical safari.
And I can remember precisely where I first came across many words. I learned quotidian from William Styron, in the opening pages of Sophie’s Choice. I learned fulminate from H. L. Mencken in the first chapter of The American Language, “The Two Streams of English.” And I learned cachinnation from this hilarious phrase by Sir Walter Scott: “hideous grimaces attended this unusual cachinnation.”
I learned apotheosis from Herman Melville, when I read the great Moby-Dick in high school: “Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing—straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!” I learned nictitate, and a lot of other elegant and stunning words, from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Perhaps trying to emulate this master of literary legerdemain, I slyly used it as the final word in my first vocabulary-building novel, Tooth and Nail: “There was no question about it. The old codger was nictitating.”
William F. Buckley, Jr., a man who was famous for refusing to dumb down his diction and who delighted in giving people lexical fits, taught me the delicious word cacoëthes, further fueling my insatiable desire for exotic words. Buckley used it as the sockdolager — the decisive blow or sizzling retort that settles the dispute — in one of his Firing Line shows on PBS, eliciting applause from the audience, nonplussing his polemical opponent, and sending me up and running for the nearest dictionary.
A good piece of writing is not like a good massage: it’s supposed to be stimulating, not relaxing. And it uses whatever verbal tools are necessary and proper to achieve its goals. Readers have no right to get huffy when a writer uses a challenging word—as long as it’s the right word. And writers shouldn’t have to pander to lazy readers or kowtow to editors who think that readers will abandon ship the moment they see a word they don’t know.
The best advice for writers that I’ve found on this matter of tone and diction is in a short essay called “The Elements of Style” by one of my favorite stylists, Robertson Davies. “When a writer thinks of his readers,” Davies wrote, “common sense will tell him that a few of them will certainly not be his intellectual equals, but that the majority will be so, and that there will be some who are greatly his superiors; he should comport himself like a gentleman toward all of them. . . .
“In my enthusiasm for a more ornate and varied style of writing than is generally recommended I know that my readers will not suppose that I am praising what Walter Savage Landor called ‘the hot and uncontrolled harlotry of a flaunting and dishevelled enthusiasm.’ In writing, as in architecture, ornament is never an end in itself; it is a splendid and sometimes playful exuberance; it is not stuck on for effect, but is indivisible from the whole. To manage it a man must be at least a fine craftsman.”
Do you remember where you learned a certain word? Are you delighted or dismayed when a writer uses a word that’s unfamiliar to you? I welcome your thoughts and opinions — and your most playfully exuberant words.