Thursday, December 2, 2010

Increase Your Word Power with Dickens

Reader's Digest used to have (maybe it still does) a vocabulary quiz each month called "Increase Your Word Power."  Any time I read an issue, I always take the quiz, always do well, and almost always learn a new word.  I like sesquipedalian words and have a proclivity for learning them.  That dilatory sentence had two; I hope their inclusion has not given this post a prematurely soporific effect.

I have learned many words from Charles Dickens over the years; I keep a list that currently stands at 127.  Dombey and Son proved a veritable catalog of this vocabulary and renewed my joy for the words.  Some of these words I now notice in general (if infrequent) use: assuage, diurnal, mollify, and voracious, for instance.  But others I still associate only with Dickens, and because I like to use them, some of my friends associate them only with me.  Here's a matching quiz on some favorites:

a. large; roomy
b. fawning; falsely agreeable and complimentary
c. commandingly loud (said of a voice)
d. an expression of warm praise
e. cheerful eagerness
f. a fit or attack of bodily symptoms
g. intensive study
h. wise
i. obnoxiously ill-behaved
j. shame

___ alacrity
___ capacious
___ encomium
___ ignominy
___ lucubration
___ obsequious
___ obstreperous
___ paroxysm
___ sagacious
___ stentorian

e, a, d, j, g, b, i, f, h, c

Why does Dickens use these words?  Why not just say "wise" rather than "sagacious"?  I can think of three reasons.  First, both the length and the rarity of the words seem to intensify their meanings.  A sagacious person sounds much more wise than a wise person.  "Capacious" is a bigger word than "big" or "large" or "roomy," so it sounds bigger.  Imagine a misbehaving boy.  Which sounds more expressive of your reaction: "You bad child" or "You obstreperous child"?  And "ignominy" is such an awkward word, it hardly looks like English at all. Where is the accent?  Does it really only have one n near the end?  The word is so misshapen, it surely feels shame in the company of the other words in the sentence and therefore expresses more shame.

Second, these words almost always appear in the narration, not in dialog, and Dickens often uses the tone ironically.  Captain Cuttle, who views all problems as nautical issues, is called sagacious.  What can this mean but that Captain Cuttle is not the quintessential wise philosopher or ethical guide?  His simple remedies are almost always invaluable, though, and the narrator's affection for the kind-hearted mariner shows through the word "sagacious" in a way that "wise" could not match.  When little Paul Dombey's schoolmates see his pretty sister, Florence, the narrator tells us they heap encomiums on her.  Again, the word is funny because we know the eight-year-olds' compliments are not eloquent or original enough to deserve the high-toned word.  And yet, doesn't the use of the word suggest that Florence herself would deserve every poetic praise of the most passionate adult admirer?

Third, I imagine that Dickens enjoyed the words even more than I do and just couldn't resist using them.

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