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Pool: Rolling around with sesquipedalian words

By Frank Pool
Nov. 28, 2017 at 12:27 a.m.


I was thinking about incunabula the other day. Well, actually I was pondering "incunabula."

The word itself refers to early printed books before the year 1500. It's an odd word, to be sure, and one most people can go about their lives without ever encountering. But it's one of those odd words that are simply fun to roll round in your mouth, though hard to work into conversation.

Some words just keep coming up in memory because they're odd. I took Spanish a very long time ago, but for whatever reason I can still remember the word for "meatballs." It's "albondigas."

Though I learned decades later that words in Spanish beginning with "al" derive from the Arabic of the Moorish conquest, in 1968, it just seemed a silly word, so I remembered it.

A predilection to using big words marks one as a sesquipedalian. There's a word story behind that one, having to do with metrical poetry, but it's Greek to most of us.

Greek, in fact, gives us a lot of odd and fun words. The antithesis of "sesquipedalian" is "demotic," which is one of my favorite words. It derives from the Greek for "the people" and gives us both "democracy" and "demagogue."

Unlike some of the other words mentioned previously, this is one I actually use. For one thing, its appearance is very close to "demonic"; indeed, it's just one letter away.

I have a friend in Australia who is highly educated, a fine poet and a folk musician. He plays the mandolin, ukulele and banjo. I've remarked that his tastes in music run to a demotic mode, and I'm outspoken in my belief that the banjo was invented by Satan. He appreciates the word-play, if not the sentiment.

Another of my favorite odd words is "rapscallion." This one comes from French and means "little wild onion."

It's a synonym for "rascal," with perhaps a touch of affection. I sometimes use it to describe a mischievous student who might be lovable but is hard to cultivate.

Another related word that I sometimes use when I'm in the grip of sesquipedalianism is "miscreant." Though the common meaning of "villain" dates to the 1500s, its root goes back to the Latin for "belief," the same root that gives us "credit," "credible" and "credulous."

Originally a miscreant was a pagan, infidel or heretic — one who misbelieved. From misbelief to misbehavior — from heresy to felony — was seen as a very slight jump.

Occasionally, sesquipedalianism can be an antidote for linguistic silliness. Nowadays, we think it's somehow rude to refer to people as poor. Instead, the euphemism treadmill gives us "SES" which is "socio-economic-status." It means the same thing, but perhaps by avoiding the word, maybe the poor won't notice their penury.

My two-bit alternative is "impecunious." It means "poor," but sounds nicer. Actually, it derives from an Indo-European word for moveable wealth, especially livestock.

Later, it comes to denote money, though when this idea gained currency is unclear.

Today, it might mean "all hoodie but no cattle." I tend to use it in the phrase "impecunious scholar," which describes most of the scholars I've ever met.

Many scholars, regardless of SES, know what a palimpsest is. It's a document that has been erased, but earlier text can be seen. Some ancient books have been recovered through examining old manuscripts in medieval libraries.

Poets love the word. I'm sure my Aussie buddy has put it in one of his poems somewhere. I'm hoping to see "demotic" someday.

Or a sonnet ending with "incunabula."

— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School.

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