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?