Monday, April 4, 2011

Mencken’s Vocabulary

The indomitable Russell Baker, in a review of Prejudices, a collection of H. L. Mencken’s journalism, lists 17 words that sent him scurrying to Webster’s Unabridged, before he gave up for fear of wearing out the dictionary.  How many of these words, which seem to flow naturally from Mencken’s typewriter, would you have to look up?

            Confutation, Fantee, Usufructs, Punctilio,   
            Bedizenments, Laparatomy, Enharmonic, 
            Endoneurium, Corpora quadrigemina, 
            Hypertmetropic, Mariolatry, Haruspices, 
            Oedematous, Gerousia, Hunkerous,
            Socianism, Struthious

Mencken, who said he wrote just to find out what he was thinking, lacked a college education, but dipped extensively into American and British literature on his own. His writing is characterized by a florid use of long words, based on his belief that the joy of reading (as he said of Chaucer) comes out of the mere “burble of the words,” not their meaning.

To save you the trouble of looking up the seventeen words—many of which you won’t find in a standard desk dictionary—here’s a capsule definition of each:

Confutation – overwhelming rebuttal
Fantee – a tribe and language of the African Gold Coast
Usufructs – rights to use the property of another
Punctilio – a minute detail of a code of conduct  
Bedizenments – gaudy adornments
Laparatomy – abdominal incision
Enharmonic -  describing musical notes that are written 
       differently but sound the same, e.g. A-flat and G-sharp
Endoneurium – connective nerve tissue
Corpora quadrigemina – parts of the brain
Hypermetropic – farsighted 
Marioloatry – idolization of the Virgin Mary
Haruspices – Roman soothsayers
Oedematous – swollen by fluid accumulation
Gerousia – council of elders 
Hunkerous – opposed to progress 
Socinianism – a sixteenth-century Christian heresy
Struthious – pertaining to ostriches and similar birds

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou uses a number of words you would probably have to look up – but you wouldn’t find them, at least not in any self-respecting dictionary.

            Tending to use a very long word
            Is known as sesquipedalian.
            And when such a word is occasionally heard,
            Chances are it’s said by an alien.

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