I do not like a fabric in which the seams and stitches show, just as in a handsome body we must not be able to count the bones and veins: Let the language devoted to truth be plain and simple. Who speaks carefully unless he wants to speak affectedly? [Seneca]. The eloquence that diverts us to itself harms its content. As in dress it is pettiness to seek attention by some peculiar and unusual fashion, so in language the search for novel phrases and little known words comes from a childish and pedantic ambition. Would that I might use only those that are used in the markets of Paris!

— Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children”


Nor do I see why I should be deterred by the fact that, when this book was announced, a few newspaper smarties protested that the word would be unfamiliar to many readers, as it was to them. Thousands of excellent nouns, verbs and adjectives that have stood in every decent dictionary for years are still unfamiliar to such ignoramuses, and I do not solicit their patronage. Let them continue to recreate themselves with whodunits, and leave my vocabulary and me to my own customers, who have all been to school.

— H. L. Mencken, preface to A Mencken Chrestomathy


I would prefer to always back Montaigne in a scrap, but I grudgingly concede the need to award this round to Henry Louis on points. Hopefully, it goes without saying that there is an appropriate time and place for everything, and there certainly can be times in which an ostentatious vocabulary is evidence of a tedious showoff, but in general, my attitude concerning obscure words is “the more, the merrier.” Too many people act as if any word they haven’t encountered in the past week is archaic and should be shunned. Must all music be three-chord punk rock? Must all religion be dour fundamentalism? Then why should all written and verbal expression be as straightforward as a grade-school primer?

Whenever I visit a library booksale, I like to glance through the language/English/reference section, if there is one, to see if there are any compendiums of weird and forgotten words. I never get tired of collecting them. And I still subscribe to Dictionary.com’s word of the day, where the occasional surprise pops up. Here’s some that I’ve saved over the last couple of years, hoping for a chance to use them. Sometimes I like the particular meaning; sometimes I just like the poetical sound of it.

causerie [koh-zuh-ree]: noun 1. an informal talk or chat. 2. a short, informal essay, article, etc.

notionate [noh-shuh-nit]: adjective 1. Chiefly Midland and Southern U.S. strong-willed or stubborn. 2. Chiefly Midland and Southern U.S. having foolish and fanciful notions.

facetiae [fuhsee-shee-ee]: plural noun 1. amusing or witty remarks or writings.

expatiate [ik-spey-shee-eyt]: verb 1. to move or wander about intellectually, imaginatively, etc., without restraint.

otiose [oh-shee-ohs, oh-tee-]: adjective 1. being at leisure; idle; indolent.

insipience [in-sip-ee-uhns]: noun 1. lack of wisdom; foolishness.

caducity [kuhdoo-si-tee, –dyoo-]: noun 1. frailty; transitoriness: the caducity of life.

operose [opuh-rohs]: adjective 1. done with or involving much labor.

refugium [ri-fyoo-jee-uhm] noun 1. an area where special environmental circumstances have enabled a species or a community of species to survive after extinction in surrounding areas.

plethoric [ ple-thawr-ik, -thor-, plethuh-rik ] adjective overfull; turgid; inflated: a plethoric, pompous speech.

thersitical [ ther-sit-i-kuhl ] adjective scurrilous; foulmouthed; grossly abusive.