The Oxford English Dictionary, including its four supplements, defines 477,575 words. Amateur lexicographers have to settle for less ambitious tomes. Peter Bowler's Superior Person's Book of Words (Godine, $8.95) tackles just 500.
Attempts to reach the reclusive Bowler, an Australian who lives in the town of Evatt, failed completely. So did all efforts to locate Evatt.
The dust jacket provides the only clue to the author's nature, noting "he becomes noticeably tongue-tied in the face of questioning, and indeed has been known to break down completely and admit to being just an easily confused fat man with a poor memory."
Bowler argues in his Prolegomena (later defined as "much better than just saying preface or prologue") that "words are not only tools; they are also weapons . . . They can be used to confuse, deter, embarrass, humiliate, puzzle, deceive, disconcert, alarm, insult, intrigue, or even compliment."
And sometimes, he adds, they can simply be used as toys -- pleasurable playthings. A sample of each, with Bowler's comments:
Alopecia: Baldness. The Superior Person should always be alert to the potential value of medical terms when properly used in lay conversation . . . Thus: "My husband's alopecia is very bad this morning, Mr. Purbright; I'm afraid I may not be able to get in to the office before about 11 o'clock."
Ante-jentacular: Pre-breakfast. Goes nicely with post-prandial (after dinner).
Aprosexia: Inability to concentrate. Not, as might incautiously be assumed, apres-sex activities. Useful when completing the "nature of illness" section on your sick-leave application form.
Ataraxia: Absolute calm and tranquility . . .The condition of a lexicographer on reaching the word zythum, which, appropriately enough, means a kind of malt beer.
Contraindicated: Inadvisable. A technical term from the realms of medical/pharmaceutical jargon. "For the treatment of headache, amputation is contraindicated." A word that is surprisingly useful in nonmedical discussion. "I think, darling, a visit by your mother at this particular time is contraindicated."
Facinorous: Exceedingly wicked. "I will speak no ill of my opponent in this election campaign. All of us recognize and accept his truly facinorous nature."
Insolation: Exposure to the rays of the sun. A useful substitute for sunbathing. "I'll be taking a long lunch-hour today, Mr. Fernberd, if that's all right with you -- I'm overdue for my insolation treatment."
Megapod: Having large feet. (See remiped.)
Nidificate: To build a nest. You settle down in the quietness of the theater to enjoy the opening dream sequence of "Wild Strawberries." From the seat in front of you comes an insistent crackling and rustling of candy wrappings. "Usher!" you call out in a loud voice, "I think the woman in front of me is nidificating in her seat!"
Remiped: Having feet that are adapted for use as oars.