There's A Word For It

There's A Word For It

by Charles Harrington Elster


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416510864
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 07/01/2005
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 602,991
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Charles Harrington Elster is the author of The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, Verbal Advantage, and other books about words. He is a guest contributor to The New York Times Magazine's "On Language" column and has been a commentator on hundreds of radio shows.

Read an Excerpt


If you're looking for a sane, sedate, even-tempered treatise on improving your command of the English language, I advise you to look elsewhere immediately, for what you're about to read (if you dare) is a work of the utmost intellectual incontinence written by a man who is plumb crazy, stark raving mad, and out of his grandiloquent gourd about words.

In a word, I am a logomaniac (LAHG-uh-MAY-nee-ak), a person obsessed with words (from the Greek logos, word, and mania).

Bring up the subject of language and I'll talk your ear off. Hand me a dictionary and I'm lost in its pages for a week. Ask me to find an obscure word and I won't sleep until I track it down. If there were a twelve-step program for wordaholics, you'd never catch me at a meeting sipping coffee and swapping gloomy stories about lethologica (LEE-thuh-LAHJ-i-kuh), the inability to recall the precise word for something, or loganamnosis (LAHG-an-um-NOH-sis), an obsession with trying to recall a forgotten word. I am an unrepentant, irremediable word nerd and proud of it, for language is the most pleasant obsession I know.

Chances are There's a Word for It piqued your interest because you're a bit of a nut about words too, perhaps even a closet verbivore, a person who devours words. If so, then I guarantee you will relish feasting on the many rare and succulent morsels dished up here. On the other hand, you don't have to be a major league lexical loon like me to enjoy and profit from this book.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is not impossible. Simply click your ruby reading slippers three times, whisper "Where there's a will, there's a word," and take off with me into the wild blue verbal yonder for an out-of-this-world tour of the twilight zone of language, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy with mixed mass-cultural metaphors.

As your grandiloquent guide on this excursion into the linguistic stratosphere, my docent duties are twofold: first, to feed you a steady diet of unusual and unusually useful words, ones that may be esoteric but that bear directly on your life; and second, to amuse, entertain, and occasionally exasperate you with jokes, puns, pop quizzes, anecdotes, artful digressions, egregious alliteration, spurious quotations, and a dazzling display of hilarious light verse.

If you prefer to ingest your word lore unsalted and fat free, the menu here will probably elevate your blood pressure and clog your brain; however, if you like your words served up with a wily wink, a toothsome smile, and a savory splash of panache, then I think you'll find this concoction quite palatable. In writing this grandiloquent book I have plumbed the unparalleled vastness of the ocean of English and lived to tell the tale. As a result, I can assure you that there are some astonishing lexical creatures lurking in those depths. For example, did you know that there's a word to express each of the following definitions?

1. the state of having sore or bleary eyes

2. the groove in the middle of your upper lip

3. the metal sheath on the end of an umbrella

4. the act of puttering around aimlessly

5. sex without passion or desire

6. lovemaking in a parked car

7. food that you spit out, such as seeds and pits

8. the fear of undressing in front of someone

9. the wild look that accompanies delirium

10. someone in love with his or her own opinions

If you have latent logomaniacal tendencies, you may know one or two of the words associated with those definitions. But if you were completely dumbstruck by that list, don't worry. Those ten wonderful words, along with hundreds of other exceptional specimens, await you in the pages of this book.

(Warning: If you're feeling woozy because you have to know every one of those ten words right now or you may collapse, just take a deep breath, check the answers I've provided at the end of this introduction, and come back when you're feeling better.)

Many of the words in this book may seem unreal, if not downright bizarre. I've selected them, however, not because they are strange but because what they denote has a strange way of crawling out of the woodwork and into our everyday lives, often leaving us at a loss for words. Allow me to string together (in the present tense, for the heck of it) a few examples from personal experience to illustrate the point.

At a meeting of the San Diego Public Library's Board of Library Commissioners (I'm a member of the board), the city librarian woefully discourses on the stressed-out state of his overworked, underpaid staff. One employee, he laments, got to the point where she was pulling out tufts of her hair and making her scalp bleed. Never one to pass up an opportunity for lexiphanicism (LEKS-i-FAN-i-siz'm, showing off with words), I shamelessly interject that the word for that hair-tearing compulsion is trichotillomania (TRIK-oh-TIL-uh-MAY-nee-uh). It's one of numerous mental and physical disorders you'll find diagnosed in chapter 1, "Dr. Elster's Verbal Health Center."

Later, in the supermarket checkout line, I notice that Reader's Digest has an article on coping with a relationship in which one partner wants to have sex more often than the other. Aha! I think, cackling logomaniacally. How many of the Digest's readers know that the word for that sexually unequal state is imparlibidinous (im-PAHR-li-BID-i-nus)? I doubt you'll come across that one in the Digest's word-power quizzes, but you'll find it right here in chapter 3, "Erotographomania," along with scores of other unabashed locutions about love and sex.

At home, I turn on the TV and watch one of those primetime newsmagazines. They're doing a story on people with phobias. One poor fellow confesses his paralyzing fear of riding on subways. Aha again! cries the verbivoracious beast in my brain. Does the man, or even his therapist, know that the name for that dreadful condition is bathysiderodromophobia (BATH-ee-SID-ur-oh-DROH-muh-FOH-bee-uh)? You'll come face to face with that redoubtable term in chapter 6, "Frightful Words," which features what I believe is the largest collection of phobias ever assembled in print.

When that fearsome segment is over, I turn off the TV and pick up "F" Is for Fugitive by mystery novelist Sue Grafton, seeking some relief from all these unbearably precise, polysyllabic words. But sure enough, on page 47 Grafton's protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, wonders if there's a word for it: "I had a friend who ate pencil shavings. There's a name for that now, for kids who eat inorganic oddities like gravel and clay. In my day, it just seemed like a fun thing to do and no one ever gave it a passing thought as far as I knew."

Had Kinsey not abandoned the chase so quickly (the scene takes place in a library, for Pete's sake!), or had her creator had the passing thought of giving me a call, Kinsey and her many fans could have experienced the thrill of disinterring the words geophagy (jee-AHF-uh-jee), the act of eating dirt, clay, or other earthy substances, and pica (PY-kuh), a craving for unnatural or indigestible food such as chalk, ashes, coal, paint chips, or pencil shavings. You'll be nibbling on those and other exquisitely edible terms in chapter 2, "Food for Thought."

The question remains: Why write a book about words that hardly anyone uses or understands? No matter what I say, certain callous critics will conclude that I did it because I am an insufferable pedant who wants you to cultivate your powers of obfuscation and assert a pseudointellectual superiority over your peers. My answer to that charge: I may be insufferable, but I am not contemptible. My sole and sincere desire, gentle reader, is to broaden your lexical horizons and give you an inimpeachable excuse to join me in going completely gaga over words.

Most of us — especially those criticasters (third-rate, mean-spirited, contemptible critics) — slog ineloquently through the morass of life, padding the drab discourse of our days with circumlocutions (roundabout modes of expression) and battology (tiresome repetition and idle talk). Every so often we stumble upon something for which we're sure there must be a word but we don't know what it is. At such times our dime-a-dozen word store is useless. We need the extraordinary term that expresses the seemingly inexpressible, but we just can't come up with it.

There's a Word for It is a remedy for that tongue-tied state. It will help you plug gaping holes in your vocabulary and apply vibrant color to the blank spots in your picture of the world. If you've ever been tantalized by a desire to know whether there is in fact a word for it (whatever your peculiar, pesky "it" may be), I am sure you will find satisfaction in these pages. Along the way I suspect you will also discover many elusive words that have been slithering around on the tip of your tongue. (Time to spit those critters out, don't you think?)

In short, I wrote this book to help you attain some measure of verbal mastery over the multifarious phenomena of experience. That mastery, and the mental acuity that accompanies it, is what I mean to imply in my subtitle, A Grandiloquent Guide to Life.

Although dictionaries often list pompous and bombastic as synonyms of grandiloquent, no such pejorative sense is intended here. Throughout this book, I have used grandiloquent and grandiloquence to suggest diction (a choice of words) that is both eloquent and precise, elevated in tone but rigorously exact in sense. As the ancient Greek philosopher Lexiphagoras of Aphasia opined in this aphoristic verse,

Of language it may be averred

That precision is always preferred.

Thus to blur is to err,

And from that we infer

It's absurd not to use the right word.

In compiling this eclectic collection I tried to eschew words for which there exists a simple, more familiar synonym. Why say "She's a zetetic journalist" when you mean "She's an investigative reporter"? Is anything gained by using discalced for barefoot, algid for cold, habile for able, or mephitic for smelly? Nifty words, but their utility is limited. Again, my aim is edification and entertainment, not pretentious obfuscation.

Except for a handful of my own neologisms, which are duly noted, I guarantee that every last oddball word you will find in these pages is real and documented in at least one dictionary or reference book. (I just can't remember which one at the moment.)

Some of my word stock is obsolete, of course, but who cares? Just because a word is no longer used doesn't mean it's no longer useful. As Ambrose Bierce remarks in his Devil's Dictionary, obsolete means "no longer used by the timid." According to Bierce (and I wholeheartedly agree with him), "If it is a good word and has no exact modern equivalent equally good, it is good enough for the good writer."

Chief among the sources I relied on in writing this book are the ten-volume Century Dictionary (1914); the second edition of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary (1991); Webster's New International Dictionary, second edition (1934), possibly the finest word hoard ever assembled in one volume; the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, second edition, unabridged (1987); and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, third edition (1992). (Throughout the book I often refer to the first four of these tomes as the Century, the OED, Webster 2, and Random House II.) If you still have an itch to expand your grandiloquent vocabulary when you've finished this escapade in exalted expression, I urge you to consult the selected bibliography, where you will find other invaluable references on unusual English words.

As the subtitle suggests, I've designed this book as a series of lighthearted lessons on life — and specifically on how to live "the grandiloquent life." My leisurely lexical tour takes you through the physical, mental, spiritual, material, and immaterial realms of language, covering most of the major human affairs and preoccupations. It's a flexible, loosely structured format, suitable for perusal, browsing, or reference. So delve in wherever you please to learn and enjoy.

There's a Word for It is an open-hearted invitation to become a moonstruck wayfarer in the multivious world of words. (Multivious, pronounced muhl-TIV-ee-us, means having many paths or roads.) Imbibe its contents as an antidote for omnistrain, the stress of trying to cope with everything at once (otherwise known as everyday life). Swallow some of its words daily as an Rx for nullibiety (NUHL-i-BY-i-tee), the state of being nowhere.

When all is read and done, I think you'll conclude that what you've ingested is proficuous (proh-FIK-yoo-us), advantageous, profitable, and useful — rather than frustraneous (fruh-STRAY-nee-us), vain, unprofitable, and useless. I also hope you will have found much to make you checkle (laugh heartily).

1. lippitude (chapter 1)

2. philtrum (chapter 1)

3. ferrule (chapter 11)

4. horbgorbling (chapter 10)

5. acokoinonia (chapter 3)

6. amomaxia (chapter 3)

7. chankings (chapter 2)

8. dishabillophobia (chapter 6)

9. periblepsis (chapter 1)

10. philodox (chapter 5)

Copyright © 1996, 2005 by Charles Harrington Elster

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