Sesquipedalianism

Why isn’t there is great online dictionary? Wikipedia is a great online encyclopedia, but there just isn’t a great dictionary, at least, nothing on the order of the OED in terms of total coverage, but also, most important, that capability to explore randomly and discover cool new stuff. True, there is dictionary.com and ObjectGraph has a nice and convenient Ajax dictionary, but I want something that can quickly find words such as these:

  • Propinquity: proximity, nearness
  • Facinorous: atrociously wicked
  • Saponaceous: having the qualities of soap
  • Treuhand: German trust officer
  • Obnubliate: to obscure
  • Autochthonous: originating where found, indigenous
  • Procellous: stormy
  • Fisc: the treasury of a kingdom

I’ve subscribed to the Word of the Day email list for ten years, and every so often it delivers a good one, and I’ve long been in the habit of maintaining a list on my Treo or Palm device of words I come across (such as the list above) that deserve a lookup. In prep school, in Mr. Ward’s English class, we played Word of the Day, and everyone was expected to come in armed with a submission that the rest of the class would discuss, consider, and vote to the exalted position of WOTD. I appealed to my classmate’s baser instincts (all 15 year-old’s sense of humors are centered in their groin) and introduced them to such schoolboy classics as smegma, merkin, coprolite, and meconium (cheesy substance found you-know-where; pubic wig; fossilized feces; and an infant’s first bowel movement). The last term was so wildly popular that it became, in shortened form, my nickname for a while: Mec. Classmates who arrived bearing good words such as sedulous (Persevering and constant in effort or application; assiduous) never stood a chance, so Mr. Ward had to ban medical terms and excuse me from further participation. That, and I was caught making up the definition to a word, tampion, which in reality is the plug stuck in the end of a cannon to keep dirt and water out of it, but which I provided a new definition for, being a ball of dirt and spit used by hibernating bears to keep ants and other insects from climbing inside of their bums while they slept. Lacking Google in 1974 to settle the argument, I was unable to prove this variation, and was banned from further participation. Then, this morning, I found the wonderful Uterine Fury Records which is so kind as to provide a cartoon strip of how a bear constructs and deploys a tampion.

But being of the habit of reading with a pen or pencil in my hand, I have a hard and fast rule of never glossing past a word I don’t know. Down it goes, into the flyleaf or the Treo list,to be retrieved later. Never to be used in conversation, but just filed away for future reference and the appropriately pompous sesquipedalian moment (given to the use of overly long words). Now I will never rise to the level of a William F. Buckley, the god of vocabulary, and I wouldn’t dare throw one of these tongue twisters into a conversation, let alone a written sentence, but it was kind of fun to fire off a letter to the editor of the Barnstable Patriot yesterday, the kind of grumpy-old-man screed one writes when someone threatens to erect a brothel next door to a church, and drop in the word eleemosynary (related to charity) just to let them know I had some big punches in my word arsenal.

My current favorite word, and a pretty one, is petrichor, which describes the way the world smells after it rains.

Yes, I read the dictionary cover to cover as a kid. And yes, I ate paste.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Sesquipedalianism”

  1. When I was a tiny tyke, my pappy, when he made it home in time to have dinner with us, would always share a WOTD. Sesquipedalian was one of my all time favorites.

    He is also big on etymolgy. One of his best, though highly suspect origin stories is for pumpernickel. Supposedly Napoleon’s horse at the time he invaded Russia was named Nicole. His troops lived on a local brown bread called pump, which the horse ate as well since Napolian would always ask for “Pump pour Nicole.” It’s not in the Morris Dictionary or Word Phrases and Origins, but who knows.

    Anyhow, thanks for making me smile.

  2. I like the Pumpernickle story. I’m now into Wampanoag words that made it into the lexicon: squaw, wampum, etc. These are the first English-adopted examples of the vernacular but not nearly as funny to a 15 year-old as “vernix.”

  3. hihowareyou. (variation on Indian greeting). Here’s another great word…omphaloskepsis. It means to contemplate one’s navel. Again, according to my pappy, it’s a Zen term related to contemplating one’s inner being.

    Cogitate is another of my pop’s word’s that always reminds me of the Cape. He’d take a quick nap at the beach and say he was cogitating.

    I have to say I’ve been jealous of you working from the Cape for a long time — since the early 90s anyway. My family had a house off Lower County Rd in West Harwich for 30 years and I was always tempted to go to work for the CC Times but the $20k salary wouldn’t cut it, nevermind ever let me get a house on the Sound.

    Hope to meet you one of these days. I work for Text100, so I’ve been slogging away on IBM and Lenovo for a few years now. Anyhow, i love the blog, especially the cape stories. Re: ragu recipes, try the one in Lidia’s family cooking and use a chuck roast and a few sun dried tomatoes with all of the fat to get that orange cast. It’s pretty good. Also, her artichoke and sun dried tomato recipe is incredible.

    Good luck this weekend. I’m staying home so I won’t be clogging up Rt. 28 in deference to you natives. Happy 4th.

  4. Your site inspired me to put my omphaloskepsis practice on hold long enought to walk to Central Park and bloom with the cherry trees.

    Thanks 🙂

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