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One of the drearier aspects of writing for publication in the digital age is that it brings you into contact with a rising class of bore I call the assertive lexiphobe, or AL for short. He (and I find it’s mostly “he”) is a self-esteeming semi-literate who knows that the words he knows are all the words worth knowing and that everything else in the OED is just meretricious verbal tinsel for pretentious, shirt-lifting, elitist poseurs like yers truly. Okay, that’s not quite how AL would phrase the matter. Instead, AL always sarcastically invokes that ponciest of all reference books, the compendium of pretense called the thesaurus. Here’s a case in point, culled from the comments column under my mince pie article over at the Chicago Reader:

“Very interesting article. But I shouldn’t need a thesaurus to enjoy reading it.’Hegemony, assiduously, folderol, japery, provender, vestigial ?!?’ WHAT !?! Please add, ‘archaic’, ‘pretentious’ and ‘stilted’ to your ‘lexicon’. Oh. And maybe, ‘fey’, too. THANKS.”

Okay, no doubt I should just be grateful for and gracious about the “very interesting article” part. But I’ve encountered this thesaurus wheeze so often that I can’t bite my tongue. It’s not just the fact that the words under indictment are not, at least to my mind, specifically high-falutin’. (Is there even a substitute for “vestigial”? Is “vestige” safer, given that it’s two whole syllables shorter?) What I really don’t get is the underlying mentality. Why does it antagonize some dudes so much to encounter unfamiliar words? Personally there’s not much I like better (at least while reading). That’s a good part of the reason why Flann O’Brien is my favorite writer and why S.J. Perelman makes the short list. (Nicholson Baker on my man Flann: “A priceless estate-sale of alien and gorgeous vocabulary.” Exactly.)

Okay, so not everybody is gonna be rabidly gay about words for words’ sake. But what’s with the hostility, the offense taken? Sticks and stones may break AL’s bones, but how much can reading the word “japery” for the first time actually hurt him? More generally, why can’t he go get his face fucked? buccally violated?

16 Comments

  1. SERIUSLY,,,

    Y0U”RE BIG W0RDS MAKES MY HED HUrT STOP IT? 0KAY BYE

    ALS0 0NCE I DR0PED A DICKI0NERY 0N MY F00T AND THAT MADE IT SMART BUT WHEN I HITT MY SeLF 0VER THE HED WITH IT THAT DIN”DT W0RK AS G00DER

    ALS0 PLEAESE ST0OP USEING L0WER CASE,,,, CAPS ARe EASEIER T0 READ BE CAUSE THEIR L0UDER,,,,!

    ALS0 ALS0 IRRUMATI0 IMEGERY IS USELESS WITH 0UT PIX THANX

    • Excellent.

        • Kibo
        • Posted December 31, 2009 at 11:07 pm
        • Permalink

        Always glad to help. “Irrumatio” was the word of the day on my “365 Useful Words For Creeps” calendar. I don’t know why people keep buying me those every year.

        Knowing more words is like having more crayons in your box. That doesn’t really matter to the kids who just like to eat their crayons (they’re all the same flavor) but it’s nice to be able to color with “cerulean”, “azure”, and “cornflower” instead of plain ol’ “blue”.

        (You can swallow half a box of cornflower crayons before you get sick.)

        • mrparallel
        • Posted January 1, 2010 at 2:46 pm
        • Permalink

        “Irrumatio” was the word of the day on my “365 Useful Words For Creeps” calendar.

        Here I thought the term only applied to intercrural activities, but your calendar says a beej also counts?

        • Kibo
        • Posted January 1, 2010 at 7:30 pm
        • Permalink

        Oh, geez, I put the reply about dictionary research _above_ your question instead of below, so now it looks like we’re playing some perverted form of “Jeopardy!” I don’t want to know whether Alex still loves “Potent Potables” in “Jeopardy! XXX!”, or whether Andy Richter will still be champion.

  2. I’m behind you 110% ,standing toe to toe and shoulder to shoulder as we punch above our weight. I liked it best when you said “hegemony.”

  3. I appreciate your support. Some other people just don’t dig on Gramsci I guess.

  4. Mark Twain was also one who liked to show off the twenty-five-cent words, as in this famous passage from “A Double-Barreled Detective Story”:

    “It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.”

    If he wrote that today, he’d be accused of taking product-placement money from the acid reflux cartels.

  5. A little research suggests it has two meanings — I was thinking of it in the sense of “you sure got a purty mouth” forcible entry, but apparently sometime after irrumatio’s glory days (circa 2000 years ago) it also came to mean non-penetrative activities, though that sense of the word seems to be even less common.

    It’s mainly encountered in classical poetry (as the Latin verb “irrumare”) — generally, “irrumare” is translated as something like “mouth-fucking” while “fellare” is considered more gentle.

    In modern English, the word seems to have become obscure enough that many modern dictionaries don’t have it (merriam-webster.com doesn’t), while others vary on whether it has one or two meanings.

    Perhaps to avoid this sort of confusion in the future we should create some sort of standards organization. Also, we should draw up a list of several hundred new meaningless words and reserve them for the unique assignation to any new sexual practices that will be invented during the next millennium.

    • “Fellare” is my favorite Dean Martin recording.

  6. I kind of have conflicting opinions here. As a technical communicator, I spend my days condensing complex concepts into sentences that are as clear and concise as possible. On the other hand, I’m a word/language junkie and thoroughly enjoy ridiculously ornate sentences, especially when they deal with a mundane topic. One of my favorite examples of this is the passage from Neal Stephenson’s _Cryptonomicon_ where he spends about five pages describing Cap’n Crunch cereal and the method a particular character has developed for eating it.

    • Yes: I’ll never forget the reference to the special spoon that injects ice-cold milk under the cereal just milliseconds before it enters our hero’s mouth.
      Have you ever read The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker? I think you would dig it.

  7. Also, my comment ended up nested weirdly above the last two top-level comments. Oops!

  8. I wonder if the “lexiphobe” suffers from the same ailment as the fan of Top 40 radio or the club-goer who can only listen to or dance to music he has heard umpteen times before.

  9. To Jackie : Cryptonomicon! I loved that book! And I remember the Cap’n Crunch passage , although I might disagree with you about the topic being mundane.I wonder if you’ve read his “Anathem” and what you thought of it.

    • Haven’t read Anathem yet. It’s next on my to-read list.


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