Not long ago the word "detritus" appeared in a front-page headline. I have forgotten the precise context, but this was no sciolism. Even if some readers find such terms less than pellucid, the newspaper's editorial staff and headline writers are in step with what is clearly the new direction of the English language.
As a wide-ranging reader myself with farrago tastes -- two newspapers, six or eight magazines, and 10 or 12 books a month -- I have had ample opportunity to note what is happening: The trend is toward a more sophisticated vocabulary in newspapers, news magazines and in many of our more popular books. I admit to reading William Manchester's popular life of MacArthur ("American Caesar") and Herman Kahn's "The Future of the Corporation" with a dictionary by my side.
Public figures are indulging as well. Pope John Paul II, for example, spoke at length the other day of "familial concupiscence" as if the term were as familiar to his flock as it its practice. A routine opinion of a probate court judge in New Hampshire (of all places) cited "contrived anfractuosities," "non-minatory attentions," and the "alembic of the judicial processes."
The English language has proven itself labile over the years. Now, as it extends itself more widely to other cultures, it is producing a conflation of steatopygous proportions. Undoubtedly, as a prominent futurist has suggested, there will be subjoined to it many more words and phrases than are now in popular use.
Man's vocabulary, in fact, requires a commensalism with his ideas.
As philosopher-longshoreman Eric Hoffer has reminded us: "We know that words cannot move mountains, but they can move the multitude; and men are more ready to fight and die for a word than for anything else. . . The 'men of words' -- priests, prophets, intellectuals -- have played a more decisive role in history than military leaders, statesmen, and businessmen." (From "The Ordeal of change.")
All this has provided both food for thought and cause for action. It has made me, for one thing, more conscious of unfamiliar words and more eager to master them. One needs no greater propaedeutic to participate than a notebook and a dictionary.
The field of study may at first be on the catatonic side, but the residue is a lagniappe of palpable proportions. While one may happen upon words one has little use for except in Scrabble -- "awn" or "zum," for example -- the enterprise is an enriching one.
Not only is one's vocabulary enhanced, but the exercise helps to postpone senescence. No longer is antinomianism enough: As one follows such a course, intellectual phthisis is postponed.
One merely needs to be withy enough to pursue the objectives. Professor Strunk and "The Elements of Style" to the contrary, we better learn how to co-exist with what has been adduced here even if we think it contains more than its share of bumf.
To paraphrase Alice Roosevelt Longworth on Wilson, a murrain on those who will not keep up with the trend. Are You Withy?
Herewith the words appearing in his story, collocated in alphabetical order -- and looked up in the dictionary -- by Prof. Brown:
Adduce: To offer as an example or reason in discussion.
Alembic: An apparatus used in distillation.
Anfractuosities: The state of being full of windings and intricate turnings; tortuous.
Antinomian: Holding that dispensation of the moral law is of no use because faith alone is necessary for salvation.
Awn: Bristles about the seed of wheat.
Bumf: Waste paper; toilet paper.
Catatonic: A syndrome marked by catalypsy.
Collocate: To set or arrange in a place or position.
Commensalism: A relationship where one organism obtains food or other benefits from another without either damaging or benefitting it.
Concupiscence: Ardent sexual desire.
Conflation: A blend or fusion.
Detritus: A product of disintegration or wearing away.
Farrago: A confused collection; a mixture.
Labile: Changeable, adaptable.
Lagniappe: Something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure.
Meed: A reward or wage earned.
Murrain: A pestilence.
Palpable: Tangible; easily perceptible.
Pellucid: Easy to understand.
Phthisis: A progressive wasting away as in a disease.
Propaedeutic: Preparation for learning or study.
Sciolism: A superficial show of learning.
Senescence: The condition of growing old.
Steatopygous: Big buttoxed; fatty.
Subjoined: Annexed; appended.
Withy: Flexible and tough.
Zum: An animal which is a cross between a yak and a cow indigenous to Nepal.