I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on the English language. I used to roll my eyes when the teachers told us to highlight words we didn’t know in our assigned readings and look them up.
“Please,” I would scoff, “I know the words.”
I am overly proud of my grasp of vocabulary. Vain might be a better word. Smitten with hubris even, if we want to be Greek about it. But you know what they say about pride and falling, two books recently showed me how much of the English language I have yet to become acquainted with.
One was the collection of poems “One-Strand River” by Richard Kinney. Purchased as part of my National Poetry Month resolution to read more poetry (see column at bit.ly/1JEZE9r), I was unprepared for how scientifically lyrical Kinney is. Just a few gems from the opening pages:
Orrery, a word Kinney is verging on obsessed with, one of his other poetry collections is simple titled “Orrery.” My handy Oxford American Dictionary informs me it is “a mechanical model of the solar system, or of just the sun, earth, and moon, used to represent their relative positions and motions. Origin: early 18th cent.: named after the fourth Earl of Orrery, for whom one was made.” Pictured below is an orrery showing eight planets out to Neptune, made in London during the mid 19th century. (Credit Christopher Braun)
An azimuth is one part of how the direction of a celestial object from the observer is measured. Expressed as the angular distance between direct north or direct south and where the object lines up with the horizon this word also means the horizontal angle or direction of a compass bearing. From the Arabic, al-samut, meaning “the road” or “the way.”
Isothere, again from the Oxford American, “a line on a map connecting points having the same average temperature in summer. From the Greek isos ‘equal’ and theros ‘summer.’” Yeah. English has a word for that. Why? I’m not entirely sure but I’m glad it does.
The other book was the scifi/fantasy epic “The Shadow of the Torturer,” the first in the “The Book of the New Sun” series by Gene Wolfe.
In the series, Wolfe uses obscure words in new and brilliant ways. As he writes in his note on translation: “In rendering this book — originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence — into English, … I have been forced to replace yet undiscovered concepts by their closest twentieth-century equivalents.”
For example, the uniform for the Torturer’s Guild is a cloak of fuligin, described in the book as “the color darker than black” comes from fuliginous, meaning sooty or dusky from the Latin fuliginosus. According to the Oxford American Dictionary, it was introduced into the English in the 16th century “originally describing a vapor as [thick and noxious].”
All the futuristic animal species in the book are given the names of animals long-since dead. The hero is kidnapped and carried off into the forest on a baluchitherdescribed as “three times the height of a man” and wide enough for five men to ride upon its back. A baluchitherium (also called Indricotherium or Paraceratherium) is an extinct species of hornless rhinos that holds the record for largest land mammal every identified. If you don't believe me, see the below size comparison between the extinct Baluchitherium or Paraceratherium and the Sumatran, Black, Indian and White rhinoceros, as well as the extinct giant rhinoceros Elasmotherium.
And our hero has to duel using an avern, a plant with poisonous, dagger-like leaves that you detach and throw (one touch is death) and lush, white blossoms that conceal “a face like poison would have, if poison had a face.” This plant, a fantastic invention all by itself, has an equally fantastical etymology.
There’s a crater/lake in Italy named Avernus, which was believed to be the entrance to the underworld (see Virgil’s Aeneid). The Latin word Avernus itself comes from another Greek word meaning “without birds” because the crater gave off noxious fumes which theoretically killed all the birds that flew over it. The term avernus in ancient times became used for any location that gave off such poisonous vapors.
So to all the English teachers I have scoffed at: I’m sorry. I’ve finally learned that you’re never too old or too knowledgeable to pick up the highlighter and the dictionary. The English language is wonderful and weird and I shouldn’t be afraid to discover it wildest depths from writers with better vocabulary than me.