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Excerpts from Uncleftish Beholding
Healthy Disrespect for Authority
> Hierarchical Language
The Basic Idea
Useless WordsWhen I open my dictionary, I'm often struck by the abundance of words I expect I'll never see or hear anywhere else. I was planning to rant about these useless words, but I can't rant properly now that I've realized the words just belong to special fields. I do still have few things to say, though.
First of all, if you don't know what kind of useless words I'm talking about, and you have a dictionary handy, take a look—the words are easy to find.
Now, one thing that gets me is that some of the words are so obviously highly specialized that I can't understand why they were included. Consider “neoarsphenamine”.
A yellow powder, C13H13As2N2NaO4S, containing arsenic, used chiefly in the treatment of syphilis and yaws.
If I want the chemical formula for something, I expect to have to go to a chemical reference book to get it; I'd never even think to look in a dictionary. Or how about “nystagmus”?
Pathol. A spasmodic, involuntary motion of the eyeball.
When would I ever look that up? Say my eye is twitching, and the doctor diagnoses it as nystagmus, would I go home and look it up to see what ve meant? (And, if I did, some help that would be.) As a final example, how about “Mohock”?
One of a band of young aristocrats who vandalized London in the early 18th century. [Alteration of MOHAWK.]
Isn't that a funny choice of words, “vandalized”? Wouldn't “mohawkized” be more appropriate? Anyway, maybe the word shows up once or twice in, say, Dickens, but I'd just as soon put it in a specialized dictionary for reading old books. We already do the same for Shakespearean vocabulary.
So, some words are useless because they're highly specialized. Others are useless because they're just fancy Latin translations of plain Germanic words. I particularly like “formicivorous”.
Feeding on ants. [Lat. formica, ant + -VOROUS.]
What the dictionary neglects to mention (here) is that “-vorous” comes from “voro”, “I eat” … as in “devour”. So, “formicivorous” is just a literal translation of “ant-eating”. The same is true for “melliferous”.
Forming or bearing honey. [< Lat. mellifer : mel, honey + ferre, to bear.]
Speaking of Latin, my Latin dictionary has its share of amusing useless words. One of my favorites is “bumastus”, an adjective meaning “having large grapes”.
Finally, here's a little fact I've noticed. Of all the useless specialized words, some are adjectives, a few are verbs, but most are nouns. That's probably true of words in general, too, but I think it's even more true of specialized words.
To put it another way, it's more unusual to encounter an unfamiliar verb than an unfamiliar noun. Not only that, but most unfamiliar verbs are derived from unfamiliar nouns, and are not true independent words. As a nautical example, how about “brail”?
To gather in (a sail) with brails.
Or “urticate”, of course.
Speaking of using nouns as verbs, Terraplane is a story well worth reading.
Latin Words in English
@ January (2001)