Adding to the word bank

If you skim through some of the reader reviews on sites like Amazon and GoodReads you might notice a recurring complaint. It’s not a majority opinion (I don’t think), but it is significant. People don’t like finding words that they don’t understand.

I can see where some of this might be coming from. Perhaps the readers are objecting to an author putting on airs or four-flushing it. Or, in some cases, they may be upset at academic obscurantism, the layering of simple ideas in neologisms and opaque pseudo-technical prose. And such complaints, in individual cases, may have merit.

In general, however, I think authors are just drawing from their own vocabulary. And, speaking for myself, I enjoy turning up words that I’m unfamiliar with and adding to my own word bank. I suspect a lot of readers secretly enjoy this too, but they don’t like to admit to any ignorance in the fear that they will expose themselves as unlettered.

I have no such shame, so I’ll give a couple of examples I recently drew from Alan Schom’s Napoleon Bonaparte.

The first toe stub came during a description of the “seemingly infinite catena of errors” that led up to the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar. I didn’t recognize the word “catena.” It’s meaning was pretty obvious given the context, and so it would have been easy to skim over without missing anything, but I felt the need to look it up. It comes from medieval Latin (“chain”) and refers to a connected series of related things (Merriam-Webster). Apparently it had the original meaning of a series of scriptural commentaries by early Christian theologians, and has more recently taken on subsidiary meanings in the fields of linguistics and soil science.

My research continued. On the very next page I read of a British admiral’s “pulvinated ego.” “Pulvinate” sounded familiar, but I had no idea what it meant, even in context. Apparently it means shaped like a cushion (again from the Latin), but this didn’t help me much as I wasn’t quite sure what that meant either. What sort of a cushion? The dictionaries say it refers to being “moderately convex” and is usually used in a botanical or architectural context. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “pulvinated” as “swelling, bulging.” So I guess Schom was just saying that the admiral was full of himself. Did it bother me that he used a word I didn’t know to make such a simple point? Not at all. Live and learn!

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