September 1, 2012

Words William F. Buckley didn't know

Here are the words in John Updike's 1978 novel The Coup with which William F. Buckley was unfamiliar, according to WFB's December 14, 1978 column in which he passed "the sesquipedalian torch" to Updike:
Harmattan, disphoretic, toubab, laterite, suras, euphorbia, extollation, jerboa, coussabe, sareba, bilharzia, pangolins hyraxes, pestles, phloem xylem, eversion, goobers, marabout, xerophytic, oleograph, cowries, chrysoprase, henna, scree, riverine, adsorptive, haptic, burnoose

Thanks to James Fulford of for finding this column for me.

In case you are keeping score at home, "disphoretic" isn't a word in English. WFB misspelled Updike's "diaphoretic."

I read this column at 19 or 20. The only word on it I can recall knowing then was "scree," although goobers, henna, and riverine seem pretty easy. Most of the words WFB didn't know are either of a technical nature or indigenous to Africa or the Arab desert world. I know a lot more of the words now than I did then. although some of that comes from reading The Coup. Updike's vocabulary is excessive, but he was also such a talented writer that you can usually guess what the word means from context.

Do vocabularies continue to grow over a lifetime of reading? The 10 word vocab test on the GSS could of course be used for this, but most of my growth has evidently been at the high end of the range, which probably wouldn't show up on the GSS.


bjdubbs said...

Hilharzia is probably bilharzia, also known as shistosomiasis, disease due to contact with fresh water snails.

Anonymous said...

Of those I know:
extollation (e.g. of virtue)
pestles (to be used with mortars)
goobers (of the nose, though this refers to other things too which I don't know the meaning of and it would be those probably that were used in The Coup)
henna (ink?)
riverine (pertaining to rivers)
adsorptive (property that pertains to collecting matter on the surface as opposed to inside, e.g. carbon filtration)

Of course, WFB probably knows a few words that I don't.

Vilko said...

I'm a 55 year old college educated native French speaker, living in France, and I know (or guessed reasonably well the meaning of) 16 of those 24 words. But not "scree".

To be fair, 15 of those words also exist in French or Latin: Harmattan, toubab, laterite, suras, euphorbia, pangolins, eversion, marabout, xerophytic, oleograph, cowries, henna, riverine, adsorptive, burnoose.

Six of those 15 words (Harmattan, toubab, suras, marabout, henna, burnoose) are Arabic words which have found their way in French, as: l'Harmattan, toubab (in Africa, a white person; in French banlieues, a vulgar word for Whites), soura, marabout, henné, burnous.

We also have an amusing expression: "faire suer le burnous" (to make the burnous sweat) = exploit native workers in North Africa. A burnous is a kind of sleeveless hooded woolen North African coat.

DaveinHackensack said...

"Suras" I assume is the plural of "sura", a Koranic passage or chapter or what have you.

Anonymous said...

I'm the 2:24 anon, I realized I knew suras (e.g. in the Koran).

Incorrectly guessed oleograph (no, it's not a fat measuring device!), haptic (no, it's not relating to the kidneys, err make that the liver). Should have known cowries.

Tony said...

the ones i know, or have a vague knowledge about:
harmattan: the season of dusty winds, in west africa, and probably other parts.
suras: verses from the koran
jerboa: some kind of plant, whose oil may be found in shampoos
bilharzia: a disease of the tropics
pestle: the bowl that goes with the mortar (or is it the other way around)
eversion: going out rather than in. for instance, an everted belly button
goober: bogeys
cowries. the shell, once apparently used as currency amongst pacific islanders?
henna: a dye, used in india as tattoo ink, elsewhere as hair dye.
scree: loose rock, perhaps on an incline?
riverine: related to rivers (i'm guessing)
haptic: touch, as a sense

William1066 said...

I guess you meant to write sesquipedalian (foot and a half long). Learned that one for the GRE.

Let's! said...

Every Three Stooges fan knows "henna." Who says they didn't try to subtly uplift the prole masses?

From "Sing a Song of Six Pants," where they play dry cleaners (?)

Woman: "Can you make this henna color?"
Larry: "Oh, henna color at all!" Woman: "No, I mean 'henna', a brown reddish."
Shemp: "I ain't EVER ate a brown radish!"


Svigor said...

The only ones I know are extollation, pestle, henna, scree, and adsorptive, though riverine does seem self-explanatory. I would've known extollation (extol's not exactly obscure, though Google's never heard of extollation, nor has and adsorptive (they taught adsorption in chemistry) at 19, and probably scree, too. I learned pestle a bit later, and henna later still. The rest I never heard of.

gwern said...

> Do vocabularies continue to grow over a lifetime of reading?


stari_momak said...

Without looking at other comments or a dictionary:

[1-4: nothing]
suras--the Koran verses? Probably didn't know that until after 9/11
extollation--guessing the noun form of extoll
jerboa--I think some sort of plant which gives a waxy product used in shampoo?
[next three: nothing]
pangolins hyraxes-- a hyrax is a sort of high mountain rodent, like a marmot, I believe. A species of them?
pestles--hmmm, plural of pestle, as in mortar and ...?
[next two, nothing]
[marabout-no idea]
xerophytic-- guessing living in a dry climate
oleography--guessing some sort of process of writing or drawing with oil or wax
cowries-- guessing the shells
[chrysoprase-no idea]
henna--the dye popular with mid-East women for hair coloring, temporary tattoos
scree--loose rock, typically on moutain slopes
riverine--of or relating to rivers
adsorptive--guessing the opposite of absorbent, i.e. repelling water
[haptic-no idea]
burnoose-- a woman's hair/head covering

stari_momak said...

Okay, some not bad guesses--sort of close on oleograph and burnoose, nearly there on adsorbtive-- and I would have likely gotten pangolins had the comma been placed correctly.

Some of those words (e.g. coussabe, toubab) don't even show up on Apple's dictionary (which I believe is based on American Hertiage's college dictionary). A web search for 'coussabe' takes us all the way back to a 'Monthly Review" description of Timbuctoo dating from 1830

Svigor said...

Heh, forgot "goobers." Everybody knows that one.

Anonymous said...

Without looking anything up:

Laterite is probably related to lateral, which pertains to the sides of things.
Dia means "through" in Greek, but what phoretic means I don't know.
Aren't suras some kind of Koranic or other Islamic verses?
Could euphorbia be a fear of pleasure? Euphoria + phobia? Probably not.
Extollation should be the noun form of "to extoll". Praise, I guess.
I know what a pangolin is! They were mentioned in the Aubrey/Maturin novels. Ant-eater-type critters covered in big scales that live in tropical forests, in Africa I think.
And I know what a hyrax is. They look like a cross between squirrels and rabbits and live in North Africa. The word Hispania/Espan~a/Spain is thought by some to come from the Phoenician word for hyraxes. They're suppsoed to have been abundant in Iberia in antiquity. I got curious about the etymology of "Spain" once, and learned about the existence of hyraxes while reading up on it.
Pholem xylem. Xylem is a form of the Greek word for wood. Xylophone = wood-sound. What is pholem? No idea.
Eversion. We all know aversion, perversion, subversion, inversion. There's also evasion and invasion. The -in parts of inversion and invasion appear to mean very different things (upside down and into), so I wouldn't be surprised if the e- parts of eversion and evasion meant different things too. If this was a test and I wasn't penalized for guessing, I'd say that eversion means the same thing as aversion.
"Goobers" sounds like it could have been a racial epithete, though this is almost pure guessing.
Xerophytic is easy. Dry-plant in Greek. Any time you see "phyto" in biology, it is a reference to plants, i.e. flora.
I'm pretty sure about what cowries are - a type of sea shells.
Chrysoprase. Chryso means gold in Greek, but what is prase? Could it be some sort of clothing, perhaps something worn by priests? I'm probably wrong about prase.
Henna - some type of plant from which some sort of dye is derived? I think Indian women color their arms and hands with henna in the days before marriage?
Scree. I think that's rocks at the bottom of valleys? Lots of rocks strewn abound by nature, that kind of thing?
Riverine obviously means "pertaining to rivers or their banks".
Adsorptive has got to mean the opposite of absorptive. Adsorptive things probably don't absorb anything.
I'm very sure about haptic. It comes from the Greek word for touching and relates to tectile sensations. The iPad has a haptic screen because it responds to your touch. The engineers who develop such screens are involved with "haptics".

By the way, the toughest and most fun test of such knowledge that I'm aware of is the MAT, the Miller Analogies Test. I got a 476 on it once. If anyone here guessed more of these correctly than I did, he'd probably score higher.

Anonymous said...

Pretty sure I learned the meaning of the word "scree" at a young age from reading Tolkien.

Anonymous said...

goobers? Clearly WFB was out of touch with your average American. His patrician upbringing was showing.

medvedev said...

I am a Russian living in the USA for 14 years. I know eight words from the list - but all of them pertain to nature or science, which is what I do for living. I am sure that a list of English words that I don't know and WFB knew could fill a page or two.

pat said...

There are two kinds of IQ tests: group and individual. The WAIS is the most famous group test and the Stanford-Binet the most famous individual.

The Stanford-Binet takes a long time to administer. When I took it as an undergraduate I think it was about two hours - maybe three. So the instructions allow the tester to make an assessment on just a part of the full test when time is short.

That part is the vocabulary section. As it happens the list of words gets progressively more difficult so that anyone will know the meanings of the first words on the list but few will know all those near the end. The last word on the list is pretty obscure.


The last word on the list is - or used to be - limpet. I know this word. Steve knows this word. Anyone who lives in California especially anyone near Stanford should know this word.

If you don't know its meaning, google it. You will find that you immediately feel smarter.


Elli said...

I got twenty - Buckley's vocabulary seems short on natural history and foreign terms.

He must have held himself to stricter standards than I do - context and Latin would have given him a very near idea of "oleograph" or "xerophytic" but if he didn't have it precisely he didn't count it.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know the 'athletic' meaning of 'plunging' until I read this blog.

Anonymous said...

Who knows?

Reading is habit forming - I've never smoked, and don't drink but I need to get my 'fix' of stimulation, daily, by reading something new, hence the fact that the internet since its inception, has taken over my life, and the fact I'm always trawling the second hand book section of thrift shops for anything that takes my fancy. It is only by reading, and reading voraciously, do we pick up new words.
'Phloem' and 'xylem' I remember from High School biology - as I thought anyone who studied that subject to elementary level would know, as being concerned with the transpiration and food uptake of trees. Just reemember loving the sound and spelling of those words - that's another thing I think you need that type of mind that loves collecting facts in the way a trash can loves collecting garbage and a real love of words for their own sake a love of the sound, rhythym, etymology and context.

pat said...

The reason vocabulary is important is because it is 'g' loaded. Originally the Stanford-Binet used the term "verbal fluency" to describe verbal (as opposed to quantitative) ability. But that usage was confusing and is now obsolete.

Nowadays when we say verbal fluency we mean the ability to speak quickly, not search for words, and not say "duh". We do not mean vocabulary.

Professional media speakers are chosen for their verbal fluency not for their vocabularies. Try this little test at home. Copy down one of Bill O'Reilly's opening memos. Then record it. Your recitation of that text will almost certainly take longer than his did. It's even more dramatic for impromptu speech. O'Reilly talks fast, as do all the Fox talking heads. They never stumble or are at a loss for words. The greatest of these is undoubtedly Geraldo Rivera who I once saw describe the hurricane he was in, while up to his waist in floodwater and screaming into the mic to try to be heard above the howling wind. He never missed a single word.

That tour-de-force of commentary didn't prove that he was smart - rather the opposite. That's a good way to get yourself killed. But that kind of verbal fluency is a very specific talent that few have.

Obama is said to speak well. But people who say that really mean fluent in the newscaster sort of speaking. He does not exhibit a particularly large vocabulary. Some of that is undoubtedly on purpose, but smart people inadvertently use big words from time to time. Bill O'Reilly tries to tone down his vocabulary so as not to speak over his audience's head, but in heated debate he will occasionally use a $20 word.

When I was in the Army as a buck private I heard some other trooper say of me, "he uses big words but he doesn't know what they mean". I had failed. The barracks was not a faculty lounge. I wasn't trying to impress anyone, quite the opposite. I often had the right word come immediately to mind but then stumbled to find a simpler synonym or construction. I wanted to fit in. I'm sure others on this blog have had a similar experience. When you try to speak in the simplest terms it can be harder than just saying the first word that pops into your head. So it is that with continuous exposure people with larger vocabularies will inevitably reveal themselves.

By now we've all heard Obama speak in many situations. He simply doesn't use big words or complicated phrases. He does not have to "talk down" to his audience to be understood. When Bill O'Reilly uses some arcane term he immediately rephrases it in simpler terms. Obama never seems to need to do that.


Anonymous said...

I was 21 when I first took a GRE test. I scored a 790. In the 4 years between my first and second testing I read a lot more and my vocabulary probably increased. But either the first score was a fluke, or I was already too close to the test's ceiling for the impact of my further reading to register, because my verbal scored dropped 20 pts.

Veracitor said...

I know all of them but these (I haven't read The Coup-- yet!): Harmattan, toubab, jerboa, coussabe, sareba, oleograph.

Except for oleograph, which I guess to be a technical word from either the printing or petroleum industries, the ones I don't know look like African or Arabian terms, though "coussabe" has sort of a French flavor-- maybe something to do with Algeria?

That list includes terms from botany, geology, and zoology as well as Arabic(ish) words.

Larry Siegel said...

"Sesquipedalian" is also misspelled.

Aaron in Israel said...

I read this column at 19 or 20. The only word on it I can recall knowing then was "scree"...

Let me guess: You were a Genesis fan? That's how I learned the word.

Other than that, the only ones I know are "Henna" (learned that one even before moving to the Levant), "cowry," and two that seem really easy: "goober" and "pestle" (if "pestles" is just the plural?).

Anonymous said...

As an FYI.... You can find the "Passing on the sesquipedalian torch" column in the WFB book "Right Reason" on p. 424.... And the WFB review of The Coup is in the book "Buckley: The Right Word" on p. 371....

dearieme said...

I know thirteen of them. I might have known more when I was younger. But I don't have Vilko's advantage of coming from a fast-Arabising nation.

Anonymous said...

Harmattan, disphoretic, toubab, laterite, suras, euphorbia, extollation, jerboa, coussabe, sareba, bilharzia, pangolins hyraxes, pestles, phloem xylem, eversion, goobers, marabout, xerophytic, oleograph, cowries, chrysoprase, henna, scree, riverine, adsorptive, haptic, burnoose

Great writers [by which I mean truly gifted wordsmiths] don't use words like that.

Steve Sailer said...

Goober is a Gullah word for peanut -- hence the movie theater candy Goobers are chocolate covered peanuts.

Gareth Wilson said...

I know several of these from my science background, and I recognise they're obscure. But I'm a little surprised that "scree" is considered a difficult word. It might be that it's much more familar to New Zealanders because we have so much scree.

Veracitor said...

I say great writers do use "words like that," but in ways that let the alert reader discover their meaning. English has (mostly) simple grammar, but is (in)famous for a very large vocabulary, which is why we English speakers, unlike the French, really can use "le mot juste" most of the time, and why running English text is much shorter (word or letter count) than equivalent expressions in most other languages which waste a lot of text on grammatical baggage and circumlocutions for want of specific words to convey the precise shades of meaning the author wishes to express. Anyway, psychometric researchers have shown us that acquiring and mastering vocabulary is very g-loaded; the "analogies" section of the SAT was removed specifically because it tested intelligence too well (that is, caused too much racial (and gender) disparate impact).

Anonymous said...

I say great writers do use "words like that," but in ways that let the alert reader discover their meaning.

Study The Sonnets [to the extent that they even admit any sort of productive "study" in the first place].

De Vere [or the Stratford Man or who-the-hell-ever actually wrote them] didn't use any of those asinine horseshit words like what you see on the Updike list.

To the contrary, the author of The Sonnets can take a simple, common, ordinary, single-syllable word, and twist it into four or five [or more] distinctly different possible meanings, ALL of which are capable of sensibly [as opposed to non-sensically] completing the ambient sentence.

And when you have four or five of those kinds of pivot words in a single sentence, then suddenly you've got anywhere from four-to-the-fourth [256] to five-to-the-fifth [3125] possible interpretations of the sentence, which has a really bad tendency to render the whole thing into meaningless nihilistic gibberish.

On the other hand, Hank Whittemore
has produced a coherent Prince Tudor Theory of The Sonnets, which, if correct, would be the culmination of the greatest piece of literary detective work in the history of English literature [and recently I've been playing with an idea for a linguistic explanation which would at least shed some light on what such an author might have been trying to achieve with those kinds of word games], but certainly no one in the standard "Stratfordian" school of interpretation has ever had any earthly idea what The Sonnets might be trying to say, nor do any of them have the strength of character to confess to their cluelessness.

Anyway, as I soon as I see an author using a bunch of asinine horseshit words like what you see in the Updike list, then immediately I realize that I have much, much better things to do with my time than to waste any of it on that author's corpus.

Pincher Martin said...

"Great writers [by which I mean truly gifted wordsmiths] don't use words like that."

Most great writers don't feel the need to show off their vocabulary. They prefer either an economical style that doesn't draw too much attention to itself (and away from the story) or a florid style flush with vivid metaphors, similes, and other stylistic tics, but with a reasonable range of diction that the intelligent reader can follow without a dictionary.

But some of our best writers have used obscure words at a high rate. Vladimir Nabokov is one. In Lolita, he has Humbert write to his Dolores Haze, "“I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you."

James Joyce is another great writer who expanded the English language whenever he wrote, forcing even the most highly literate people to stay on their toes when reading his books.

William F. Buckley would be an example of a writer with a wide range of diction who still couldn't write worth a damn. His large vocabulary was used to show off.

I think John Updike falls somewhere in the middle. I wouldn't call him a great writer -- certainly not in the same realm as Nabokov or Joyce -- but he was well above Buckley as a prose stylist. Anthony Burgess, a contemporary of Updike's, is another middling writer who had an enormous vocabulary and displayed it quite often in his books.

helene edwards said...

Even Google doesn't know 'extollation' - doesn't even direct you to a web dictionary.

Ex Submarine Officer said...

My favorite obscure word is "eleemosynary".

My grandfather, when an employee wanted a raise or something, was fond of saying, "We are not an eleemosynary institution".

hbd chick said...

silly people - a jerboa is a cute, fuzzy little animal! (^_^)

@elli - "Buckley's vocabulary seems short on natural history and foreign terms."

yes, that's what i was thinking. natural history (geology & biology) and anthropology. it's like he never read a national geographic.

i had to look up diaphoretic and haptic. and i couldn't remember which was phloem and which was xylem, but i knew they had something to do with plants.

and, for the record, sesquipedalian is not a word i would've ever pulled off the top of my head. (~_^) (i was able figure out what it meant from all the latin roots though.)

Anonymous said...

"greatest piece of literary detective work in the history of English literature"

= greatest piece of literary detective work in the history of the study of English literature

Bill said...

I know about half of them, but it wouldn't be so many if I hadn't been regularly reading biology books to my son for the past 6 years (he likes them for some reason).

But "goobers?" Come on, Buckley. Americans should know goobers. Hell, it's even used in Spongebob Squarepants. "Goober" is one of the few African words that made its way into American English.

Elli said...

About seventeen of the words are specific to the exotic setting of the book - the clothing, adornment, animals, customs, geography - and don't qualify as showing off or pedantry.

You might use "hooded cloak" for "burnoose" and "sleeveless tunic" for "coussabe" but why not have some fun? And if his hyraxes and jerboas got in there naturally, eating the garden or jumping in front of the jeep like grasshoppers, then they have a place in plot or description.

(Some of you are thinking of jojoba.)

Would "marabout" be the cleric or the stork, anyway?

Ex Submarine Officer said...

Honest to god nobody knows goobers? Eating Goober Peas? Is this place totally yankee?

I don't know anyone, at least down south, who doesn't know what that means.

Anonymous said...

Steve, do you think this woman reads you? Anyone know? Anyone invite her over here? She needs some ed-ju-ka-in'.

Anonymous said...

People who go on to become lawyers often do so because they have a literary rather than mathematical bent, and thus have a love of words for their own sake.
Often judges cannot resist a bit of verbal mellifluoslilly whilst giving out judgments in cases that are not too serious to be considered to be trivialized by a bit of verbal gymnastics.
A case in point were the 'Deep Throat' (no, not Richard Nixon, but the porno that got the whole mega buck jizz biz bandwagon roll ing back in the early 70s), obscenity trials. One anti-porno senior judge (ironically a catholic of Italian descent, as it happens), famously referred to Deep Throat as a 'disgusting platter of carrion and obscenity'.
When I read those remarks, it really tickled me, I sniggered Beavis and Butthead style for a full 5 minutes. 'Carrion', of course refers to dead flesh, as in 'carrion crows' which famously devoured of London's victims of judicial riual butchery ('hanged, drawn and quartered as the quaint British jargon put it). The use of the term 'carrion' to describe the very much alive Ms Lovelace somehow was hilarious.

Anonymous said...

With the thousands of technical terms, loanwords, slang, and new coinages constantly being introduced from old affixes and roots, the line separating a real English word from something that isn't is largely a matter of opinion. If I can't imagine a certain word's being used by my favorite writers I tend to dimiss it as a non-word.

Svigor said...

Limpet is an odd choice, assuming a multiple choice format. "Limpet mine" makes an appearance in a Bond film, and it's easy to imagine the device referred to because they're everywhere in old films.

Anonymous said...

If Updike were born 5-10 years later he'd have probably been funneled toward an M.D., a 1960s respectable/whitebread career often coinciding with vocab aptitude. Lawyers don't need the same skill since the job chiefly requires the mastery of piecemeal cant and faddish technical lingo, much like modern journalism in that way.

median isteve reader said...

Proof at last, I'm so much cleverer than that chump Buckley

Steve Sailer said...

Did Don Knotts play Mr. Limpet?

Anonymous said...

A lot of these words are more common now than they would have been at the time the book was written. As someone pointed out, after 9/11, we all brushed up on our knowledge of the Islamic, whether we wanted to or not. Henna was once obscure but now they have henna shampoo on the shelf at the local drugstore. Touch screen Phone keyboards have "haptic" feedback.

Some of Buckley's omissions are surprising. Buckley's family (despite his Locust Valley Lockjaw) had roots in S. Carolina. One would expect him to know what a goober was. A pestle is a fairly common object. My guess is that he was either reaching for examples or that he was not as smart as he pretended to be.

Norville Rogers said...

Best new word I've learned recently is "gormless," used by a film festival critic in a passing swipe at Ben Affleck