The Joy of Sesquipedalians

monophysite, mephitic, calineries, diapason, grimoire, adapertile, retromingent, perllan, cupellation, adytum, sepoy, subadar, paludal, apozemical, camorra, ithyphallic, alcalde, aspergill, agathodemon, kakodemon, goetic, apopanax

The above list comes from “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” one of the essays in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman, born on this day in 1953. Fadiman compiled her list from a 1920 book on cats by Carl Van Vechten; Fadiman’s confession is of her surprise at encountering, in a single book read as an adult, twenty-two words she did not know. She tells us that, as the daughter of Clifton Fadiman, she grew up to his stories of Wally the Wordworm, who lost his taste for the reduced language of children’s books and decided to eat the dictionary:


In Wally the Wordworm, a chronicle of some of our hero’s lexicographic adventures that my father wrote when I was eleven, Wally savored such high-calorie morsels as syzygy, ptarmigan — which tasted pterrible at first, until he threw away the p — and sesquipedalian, which looks as if it means “long word” and, in fact, does.

In the course of the rest of the essay, during which Fadiman polls her friends on their knowledge of the words on her list, we get another confession. The Fadimans were not only book-nuts and word-crazy but so competitive about it that each Sunday they teamed up to watch the game-show G.E. College Bowl. In six years of competing from home, “Fadiman U.” lost only twice.

Below, the definitions which Fadiman provides for her twenty-two words. If you don’t score well, she offers this consolation: “These words didn’t require a wordworm. They required a word anaconda.”


monophysite (n.) heretic who believes Christ has one nature rather than two (i.e. human and divine); mephitic (adj.) foul-smelling; calineries (n.) cajoleries; diapason (n.) full range of a voice or instrument; grimoire (n.) book of magic or spells; adapertile (adj.) easily openable; retromingent (adj.) urinating backward; perllan (n.) Welsh orchard; cupellation (n.) act of assaying gold or silver from lead using a cupel; adytum (n.) inner sanctum of a temple; sepoy and subadar (both n.) two ranks of Indian soldiers; paludal (adj.) marshy or malarial; apozemical (adj.) infused; camorra (n.) a Mafia-like secret society; ithyphallic (adj.) having an erect penis; alcalde (n.) Spanish or Portuguese magistrate; aspergill (n.) brush used to sprinkle holy water; agathodemon (n.) a good spirit; kakodemon (n.) an evil spirit; goetic (adj.) pertaining to witchcraft; opopanax (n.) fragrant plant