Words learned recently (or, I’m finally looking things up, Mom)

Odd plants

One of my mental aspirations for 2015 is to improve my vocabulary, especially my spoken vocabulary. The nonsense of English grammar is easy to denigrate, but the joy of being a native English speaker is that we have this immensely rich and expansive vocabulary at our disposal! And we use just the barest fraction of it. At least, I know that’s my tendency.

Reading Norman Rush’s sesquipedalian novel Mating was the primary inspiration for undertaking this challenge. I read quite a bit, but I tend to gloss over words that are visually familiar to me, (falsely) assuming that I know what they mean. For example, I’ve seen the word truculent many times, but I always thought it meant sweet or even unctuous. On the contrary! I finally looked it up, only to discover that I’ve been very wrong; a truculent person is someone who is openly hostile or belligerent. So. There you go. I’m trying to follow my mother’s oft-repeated charge to us when we were question-filled children: Go look it up. That’s what I’m going to be doing, Mom. Looking it up.

Side Observation 1: App + Audio. I’ve found the Merriam-Webster app very helpful in this process, and I keep it near me now when I read. One of the oddities of English is our unregulated, unpredictable pronunciation. (In Japanese, for instance, there is never any confusion about pronunciation. If you can get down to the basic kana level of spelling, you always know how to pronounce it. No such ease in English. God have mercy on nonnative English speakers; I have tremendous respect for anyone who learns English as a second language.) In the past, I would learn a definition of a new word, but I would often be shy about using it, for fear of committing solecism* (*one of the new words I’ve learned). The simplicity of the audio feature of the dictionary is breathtakingly comforting to me.

Side Observation 2: Latin + French. First, I wish I had stuck with Latin. I learned a smattering of it in middle school, but what a useful thing to know. Again, sorry that I doubted you, Mom. Second, my enthusiasm to pick up French as my third language has been greatly augmented. An estimated one-third of English words are some variant (or bastardization, whichever you prefer) of Old French, and I’m learning that there’s this dazzling French history behind so many of the common words we use.

That said, here are a bunch of words I’ve learned lately (many from Mating) that I’d like to start using.

  • abeyance
  • abreaction
  • agon
  • albumen (*appropriate word to throw about in our domestic parlance, now that we have chickens)
  • bibelot
  • calumny
  • claustral
  • echt
  • factotum
  • febrile (*particular favorite)
  • fustian
  • inchoate (*always thought it meant “sad;” it doesn’t)
  • inter alia
  • legerdermain
  • metanoia
  • midden
  • noumenon
  • oleaginous
  • onanistic
  • pleonasm
  • postprandial
  • sacerdotal

Any words you’ve learned lately? Care to share?


Lemon tree and friends | Abby Farson Pratt
Lemon tree & friends.
  • The weather lately: Putting me in such a good mood.
  • Our neighbor has two mature cherry trees, both of which branch over partially into our yard, so we are experiencing a delightful harvest right now. Guion has made a fabulous cherry cobbler, and we hope to repeat that effort shortly. The only downside is that the dogs like to go rooting around for fallen cherries, the pits of which happen to contain cyanide. So, we’re always on anti-cherry-hunting alert.
  • My summer passion for reading has flared up again. Currently reading and particularly enjoying The Goldfinch (I always read the popular books months behind everyone else). I can’t put my finger on why it’s so riveting to me; maybe it’s just been a while since I read a great orphan saga. But I’ve never liked Dickens, and this reminds me so much of Dickens. So why do I love it so much? I don’t know. Maybe the secret is hidden somewhere in Donna Tartt’s magical hair.
  • Also reading: The Control of Nature, by John McPhee (such a gifted writer with such a typically dry subject matter, e.g., levees); The Book of Illusions, by Paul Auster (which I find very boring); and The Social Animal, by David Brooks (one of the strangest and most mystifying premises I’ve ever come across in a cultural nonfiction book).


  • I would like to have a better spoken vocabulary. A large part of the problem is that I visually know more words than I am comfortable with pronouncing. Concupiscence stumped me at book club last week. And all of those foreign (usually French) phrases that I wouldn’t touch with my tongue: fin de siècle, aperçu, fait accompli, etc.
  • I am weary of embittered feminist blogs. Even though I like to claim myself as an embittered feminist, that ish gets real old real fast.
  • Knowing what a dog is going to do before the dog knows itself.
  • This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

First impressions of Infinite Jest

(c) NYT.

Last I checked, I’ve read about 380 pages of Infinite Jest. And I am enjoying it, making myself move slowly. Overall, it’s far funnier than I thought it was going to be. Funny in that perhaps predictably dark, self-referential way. (Thanks to friends, notably Elizabeth P. and Nick, who were encouraging and helpful in allaying my fears.)

First thoughts and impressions:

  • Since starting Infinite Jest, I have experienced a strange conflation of topics with those in IJ and those in the other books I’m reading, including: characters named Avril, life with alcoholic parents, frequent use of the verb “whinge,” and characters praying at the foot of an image of a grotesque female saint. I find this fascinating, especially since coming across such specific similarities in such different works strikes me as unusual.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was written in the 1990s. (OK, this is probably not true, but really. No one talks about literature from the 1990s. I can’t even say what might define art from that phase of my early life, except to make some passing comments on primary-color sitcoms and patterned pop music.)
  • I have been thinking about the mental effects of reading a heavily annotated novel. Flipping back and forth from the text to the endnotes produces a curious state in the reader, or at least in this reader; it makes me hesitant, almost shy, because I am constantly waiting for the next interruption. I haven’t thought deeply on the purpose of this stylistic choice, except to say that, a.) David Foster Wallace (DFW) has an abundance of information that he’d like to share, and b.) endnotes give him greater comic license.
  • Other things I don’t know about, deeper meaning-wise: DFW’s love of sharing the proper chemical names of drugs and DFW’s love of acronyms.
  • Resisting the impulse to read too much into these characters and subjects as commentary on DFW’s own life.
  • James O. Incandenza” is really fun to say out loud; so melodic!

And here is a shortened list of the words I have learned in these mere 380 pages: