July 2006

Talking about words: Exuberant Words


Splendiferous (and its cousin splendacious) is one of those words that arise from the pure joy of word-making.  After all, there's not much work that splendiferous does that would not be adequately accomplished by splendid.  But splendiferous is better because it's more fun.

We like words that have vavoom

Sober-sided lexicographers ought to pay attention to expressions whose very existence depends on exuberance.  Take, for example, the French idiom faire la nique.  My French-English dictionary offers "to make fun of someone, to cock a snook at someone."  Maybe "thumb your nose" gets close to it.  It's a rude gesture.

None of those defining phrases is much fun, though.

But now consider Randal Cotgrave who published a French-English dictionary early in the seventeenth century:

faire la nique.  To mock by nodding, or lifting up of the chin; or more properly, to threaten or defy by putting the thumb nail into the mouth, and with a jerk (from the upper teeth) make it to knack.

Knack is a word to describe the sound of two stones being hit together.

Cotgrave liked to spin out his definitions.  In this case, the English are given a small lesson in how to be rude to the French.

Cotgrave never gives just enough; he always gives too much, always an exuberance of words.  My modern French dictionary explains that a barbouilleur is a "dauber, scribbler; mumbler, babbler."  Cotgrave would have seen that entry as entirely pedestrian.  For him, a barbouilleur is "a disorderly jumbler, huddler, mingler; also a blotter, spotter, smutter, besmearer of."

Cotgrave has a lot of fun with words.  His dictionary appeared in 1611, the same year in which his most enthusiastic disciple was born:  Sir Thomas Urquhart.  (You can see on the site linked here a wonderful picture of him as a courtier in 1641.)  His life was made complicated when Charles I was executed and his Royalist supporters killed, exiled, or imprisoned.  Locked in the Tower of London, Royalist Urquhart had time for authorship, and he published a book with a title that reveals at once his enthusiasm for exuberant words:  Logopandectesion.

Urquhart is best remembered as the translator of another exuberant word-maker, François Rabelais.  Putting Rabelais's exuberant French into even more exuberant English was easy for Urquhart.  All he needed to do was to take one of Rabelais's words and translate it with all the synonyms that Cotgrave had gathered.

Urquhart's exuberance spilled over into his own creative writing.  Here is an account of two lovers just on the brink of love-making:  "... by vertue of the intermutual unlimitedness of their visotactil sensation... the visuriency of either, by ushering the tacturiency of both, made the attrectation of both consequent to the inspection of either."  "Hey, look me over," in short.

No one had more joy than Urquhart for the exuberance of words.  Here are the definitions of some of them.

visotactil: involving sight & touch
visuriency: desire to be looked at
tacturiency: desire to be touched

All of Urquhart's wacky words were composed because he was trying to prove to the Puritans that, though a Royalist, he had intellectual value to Britain and that Britain needed exuberant words.  He seems not to have made much of an impression on them, alas.

When he discovered that Charles II would be restored as the monarch, hirquitalliency (delighted shouts) got the better of him.  He died laughing.

Richard W. Bailey is the Fred Newton Scott Collegiate Professor of English. His most recent book is Rogue Scholar: The Sinister Life and Celebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff, University of Michigan Press, 2003--a biography of an American thief, impostor, murderer and would-be philologist who lived from 1821 to 1871. It was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2003.

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