Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Words : Worth

Image via Jennifer Zwick

ses-qui-ped-al-ian |ˌseskwəpəˈdālyən|
adjective formal
(of a word) polysyllabic; long : sesquipedalian surnames.
• characterized by long words; long-winded : the sesquipedalian prose of scientific journals.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Latin sesquipedalis ‘a foot and a half long,’ from sesqui- (see SESQUI- ) + pes, ped- ‘foot.’

Every now and then, you come across a word that's certain deliciousness makes you pause with amazement at the depth and perfection of the English language. There is nearly always the ideal word for anything you need to express - it is simply a matter of finding the word and absorbing it into your lexicon. I've started carrying small scraps of paper around in my bag for just such jot-worthy finds.

This act of jotting and scrap-collecting could, I suppose, be construed as nerdy behavior. Sometimes I'll read a word and begin gushing only to be stopped mid-sentence when I look at my fiance's increasingly raised brows. It can be a lonely and misunderstood pleasure. At least it was until I met Anne Fadiman via her funny, poignant, vocab-obsessed essays in Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Suddenly, I was introduced to a whole host of jot-worthy words; it was as if the curtain had been peeled back to reveal a secret society of literature-loving, book-collecting members who couldn't consume new words and their meanings fast enough. Whenever I'm feeling particularly solitary in my idiom-centered intrigue, I revisit Ms. Fadiman's humorous tribute to her literary loves and the terms that make them so.

Here, is how I was first introduced to the tasty "sesquipedalian" and why I remember it so fondly.
"In Wally the Wordworm, a chronicle of some of our hero's lexicographic adventures that my father wrote when I was eleven, Wally savored such high-calorie morsels as syzygy, ptarmigan - which tasted terrible at first, until he threw away the p - and sesquipedalian, which looks as if it means "long word" and, in fact, does. Inspired by Wally, my brother and I spend years vying to see who could find the best sesquipedalian. He won with paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde, a smelly chemical that we use to sing to the tune of "The Irish Washerwoman." One of my greatest disappointments about growing up is that it has become harder and harder to achieve a Wally-like degree of sesquipedalian repletion."
- The Joy of Sesquipedalians from Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

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