« More Crack for Photographers | Main | B&H Photo's PhotoPlus Deals »

Thursday, 30 October 2014


now imagine playing scrabble against mr. nabokov ...

Go to "word a day"

I found that Salman Rushdie is a "vocabulary showoff" when reading The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Had to refer to the dictionary more than once. (Fun book!)

"High-vocabularied"? How could your editor-in chief allow that word into print?

["Vocabularied" is the adjectival form of "vocabulary" in its first meaning, "1. the stock of words used by or known to a particular people or group of persons." Perfectly ordinary word and not improper. --Mike]

Mike, you've hit on a strategy for getting to the first page of Google search results. Now all you have to do is get people to search for oporopolist or papacolist and presto, there you are! Ideally, these will be people who will then click on your purchasing links and buy lots of stuff from that well-known oporopolist, Amazon.com. Unfortunately, B&H doesn't sell fruit.

> Writers are much better that the general population, however, at using
> words precisely: they'll use the right word rather than what Twain called
> its "near cousin."

This reminds me of a recent posting of yours.


99.999999% of the English-speaking world probably wouldn't call a Chamonix a "small" camera,


99.9999% of the English-speaking world probably wouldn't call a Leica S a "small" camera.

OTOH, a significant proportion of that English-speaking world would probably understand that if a camera, in a particular usage scenario, delivers sufficient enjoyment, then its bulk isn't an issue.

One interesting question, as you previously pointed out, might indeed be how to succinctly describe the context evoked by a camera within which it becomes "small", presumably because its bulk ceases to be a factor or a burden in said context ;-)

One more way that the internet makes life better -- you can look up anything (almost) any where. And one more reason to read using a Kindle with its built-in dictionary.

(Insert link to the new Kindle Voyage here)

So I had to Google those words... And the Online Photographer showed up in the top search results for most of them. :)

I'm pretty sure it must have been the other way around as Eliot died before Pound.

From The Phrontistery: A Compendium of Lost Words

oporopolist n (1671 -1725) fruit-seller
noscible adj (1654 -1654) knowable; well-known
papicolist n (1633 -1810) one who worships the pope; a papist

[You found my source. I wanted near-nonsense words that would not convey any meaning. --Mike]

Point taken but sorry Mike, the Eliot comment upon the death of Pound is a fiction since Eliot predeceased Pound by more than seven years (Eliot: early 1965; Pound: late 1972). Maybe it was the other way around, though it is hard to imagine Pound cracking jokes in his late, silent period, if ever.

[Sorry, I did have it wrong way 'round. Fixed now. --Mike]

I don't know Nabokov's intentions, but I got the distinct feeling when I was trying to read Joyce's Ulysses that he was not trying to communicate. I forced myself through about 2/3 of the book and then gave up. I just felt that Joyce was thumbing his nose at me: "Look I know moire words, I know more obscure Irish lore and history than you do; you'll never figure out this puzzle"

"With simpler, more common words, that version communicates meaning to more people."

Given Nabokov's status as one of the greatest writers in the english language, and his explicit choice of obscure words in your example, perhaps his intention wasn't to communicate clearly about Catholic fruit-sellers? Maybe he was playing with words (and/or the reader) for some other aesthetic end?

They are so obscure that looking them up via web search does NOT lead one to the usual sources but instead to more cumbersome ones.

And one of the first hits for "noscible" is Mike's own post...

Seems to me there are both dead words walking (still in the dictionary), and words that do get used regularly but not nearly as frequently as simpler words. Using the words that exist only as fossils in the dictionary means a very different thing (obscurantism, seems to me) from using words that are current but might not be known to some readers (could still be a tactical error, but it's much easier to make casually since the word is in the authors normal use vocabulary).

Those three words should be in a spelling bee.

Regarding James Joyce's "Ulysses," which I read in college without enjoyment or appreciation, it seems that Joyce freely mimicked his wife's steam-of-consciousness writing in the letters she sent to him while he was in Paris.

George Orwell had some useful rules for good writing. One was:

"Never use a long word where a simple one will do."

When Hemingway was criticized by Faulkner for his limited word choice he replied:

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use."

'Speak, Mnemosyne' sounds as awful as 'Trimalchio in West Egg'.

There are many reasons for writing a book or a poem in a particular way, using a specific choice of words. However, if you want to tell a story that the reader lives through, you must avoid words that throw him/her out of the story. When a reader hits a word that he doesn't know -- and especially when he can't simply bleep through it, when it's an obviously critical artifact planted there by the author -- then suddenly he's sitting in a chair or lying on a bed, reading print on paper, rather than being transported by the story. In my line of work (writing thriller novels) that will kill a book -- you do it too often, an otherwise worthy novel might not be published.

Other books, however, are more made to be contemplated than to be experienced. The writer doesn't intend to get your heart beating hard, but rather to make you think about some particular issue. That's how you get a novel about, say, a long-term marriage and all its twists and turns, which might not be especially dramatic, but makes you reflect on your own relationships. In that kind of work, you don't have to worry so much about throwing the reader out of the story, because he will occasionally step out of it himself, voluntarily, to think about it.

One of the most interesting challenges of writing is that there isn't just one best way to do it.

If Nabokov had been English's native language, we'd all be more high-vocabularied.

Language can work in ways that are not immediately obvious.
In another context, I could say that someone is a stamp collector (and everyone would know what that is), or I could say that he is a philatelist. Many people, but not everyone, would know what that is but those who had to look it up might discover that it has overtones of knowledge and specialisation etc that "stamp collector" does not.
So simple word descriptions are often simple because something is left out which is included in a more specialised version.
About Nabakov - from the few writings of his that I have read, and marvelled at his command and use of language, I suspect that when he uses words which even someone of Mike's vocabulary span has difficulty with, then it is intentionally to cause that difficulty that he uses them. The reason may be irony (giving a specialised term to something mundane mocks its ordinariness) or because he wants you to spend longer thinking about the implications behind the word - as you would do if you had to look it up. I don't think it is necessarily literary showing-off. Nor, with Nabakov's generally very interesting and arresting writing, is it a turn-off. You may feel that looking up the word is likely to be worthwhile in a way you won't know until you look it up.

Mike, I am not a native English speaker. However, I believe you (and Bruno Masset, who quoted the last sentence of your penultimate paragraph for his comment) missed the erroneous use of "that" instead of "than". Might have been autocorrect messing up again. Any way, it didn't take anything away from what you wanted to communicate :-)

"it seems that Joyce freely mimicked his wife's steam-of-consciousness writing in the letters she sent to him while he was in Paris"

I heard that about Joyce and I think it is plausible because I always struggled with Ulysses until heard the audio version (I can't remember which actor) on the radio. It seems counter-intuitive that such a notoriously 'difficult' and literary book should be easier when spoken, but it really is. The difficulty fades away (except for certain patches) and the fun and wit comes to the fore. Try it and see.

I once was tripped up by the word "algedonic" in a novel. Looking it up in several, hardcopy, dictionaries without luck, until I found Webster had a good definition. It now is part of my vocabulary and describes succinctly in my mind many things, such as carrying the right, larger camera because only it will realise the picture you have in mind. However, I don't have many occasions to use it in conversation.

"Ain't got no pencil" is 100% grammatically correct. It is inappropriate for some registers, that's all.

One of my former bosses used to use the term "oporopolist" to describe any brown-nosing middle manager who was chasing a promotion.

I always assumed that it was related to 'populist', in other words a person who always told people what they wanted to hear. That it should turn out to be a far more poetic euphemism doesn't surprise me. She was one of the most brilliant (and dry witted) people I ever met.

Calling someone a "fruit seller" works almost as well, only without the scathing double irony implied by their inability to understand the insult.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007