Day’s Verse:
[Love] Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

1 Corinthians 13:7-ish

Lately I’ve been reading a six-book series called the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson. The major characteristics of the books are the hopeless, miserable way the protagonist moves through the books — he’s really just moved around by other more lively, driven characters — and the author’s use of remarkably arcane vocabulary.

Now, I’d generally consider myself to have a pretty decent vocabulary. I did all the vocabulary quizzes in high school, read Atlantic Monthly, and generally enjoy words. Using exotic vocabulary rarely fazes me, and only infrequently do I encounter a book that contains more than a scattering of words I don’t recognize at all. The Thomas Covenant series, though, regularly uses words completely unfamiliar to me, as well as quite a few words I haven’t encountered since those long-ago vocabulary quizzes. Just for the heck of it (I had 4 hours to kill waiting for a ride from Trout Lake home — I’m still in the midst of them right now) I decided to document all the unusual vocabulary words I encountered in one chapter (Chapter 9 of book 6, White Gold Wielder, pages 193 to 219), a total of 26 pages. The following list includes the word; and my guess, from context, as to what it means; and the actual definition.

KEY:
Word – my best guess definition – definition from Merriam-Webster online
* = Word I already knew but rarely encounter.

  1. *Argent – silver
  2. Vermeil – red – gilded silver
  3. Demesne – kingdom, territory – estate, region, territory (others)
  4. Ambit – notice, zone, sway? – a sphere of action, expression, or influence: scope (others)
  5. *Virulent – contagious sickness, spreading – extremely poisonous or venomous, malignant (others)
  6. *Preternatural – unnatural, over-natural? – existing outside of nature (others)
  7. *Effaced – hidden from view – to cause to vanish (others)
  8. Periapts – objects of power – amulet
  9. Auge – disease, weakness – definition not available free on Merriam-Webster! d’oh!
  10. *Carillon – bell – a set of fixed chromatically tuned bells sounded by hammers controlled from a keyboard
  11. Geas – magical compulsion – not listed in Merriam-Webster online at all!
  12. *Rectitude – uprightness – moral integrity : righteousness
  13. Percipience – perception, sight, vision – perception
  14. Argute – acute, tense – definition not available free on Merriam-Webster! d’oh!
  15. *Verdant – lush – green with growing plants
  16. Roborant – medicinal drink – definition not available free on Merriam-Webster! d’oh!
  17. Immedicable – untreatable – incurable
  18. *Caterwaul – crying, wailing – to make a harsh cry
  19. Bourne – home – boundary, limit (others)
  20. *Eldrich – magical – weird, eerie
  21. *Tarn – lake – a small steep-banked mountain lake or pool
  22. Oriel – window, opening – a large bay window projecting from a wall and supported by a corbel or bracket
  23. Coign – window, opening – definition not available free on Merriam-Webster! d’oh!
  24. Malefic – malicious, evil – having malignant influence : baleful; malicious
  25. Suasion – persuasion, argument – the act of influencing or persuading
  26. *Prescient – presaging – foreknowledge of events
  27. Puissance – power – strength, power
  28. Donjon – castle – a massive inner tower in a medieval castle
  29. *Cairn– memorial marker – a heap of stones piled up as a memorial or as a landmark
  30. *Embrasure – window, opening – an opening with sides flaring outward in a wall or parapet of a fortification usually for allowing the firing of cannon (other)
  31. Inanition – ??? – the quality or state of being empty: (a) : the exhausted condition that results from lack of food and water (b) : the absence or loss of social, moral, or intellectual vitality or vigor (reference)
  32. *Vertiginous – inducing vertigo – causing or tending to cause dizziness (others)
  33. Chausuble – hood – a sleeveless outer vestment worn by the officiating priest at mass
  34. *Crozier – staff of office (for a bishop) – a staff resembling a shepherd’s crook carried by bishops and abbots as a symbol of office
  35. *Exigency – need of the moment – : that which is required in a particular situation —usually used in plural (others)
  36. Mendacity – ??? – 1 : the quality or state of being mendacious (really helpful definition); 2 : lie
  37. Countervailing – countermand, opposite order – to exert force against an opposing and often bad or harmful force or influence (others)
  38. Reft – bereft – to deprive one of; seize (more)
  39. Falchion – huge sword – a broad-bladed slightly curved sword of medieval times
  40. Deflagration – fire, bursting into flames – to burn rapidly with intense heat and sparks being given off (more)

(Side note: how many of these did you know? Can you fill in any of the undefined ones for me? Please??)

Now, I’m all in favor of “the right word for the right use,” and I love learning new words. Frankly, though, most of these word choices strike me as gratuitous use of a thesaurus, rather than using the right word in the right situation. For instance, why say “suasion” rather than “persuasion”? Or “percipience” instead of “perception”? Or “puissance” for “power”? Or, for heaven’s sake, “immedicable” rather than “incurable”?

OK, so if the author wants to use a cool vocabulary word now and then, that’s fine. But he used “embrasure” 3 times in one paragraph. He used 40 jump-out-at-you, grab-a-dictionary words in 26 pages. “Puissance” has appeared often enough that I’m ready to vomit at the sight of it. Most of his unusual vocabulary choices come from 14th Century origins and haven’t enjoyed common usage for centuries. At this point, my enjoyment of learning new words has transmogrified (take that, Stephen R. Donaldson! You’re not the only one who can toss around unnecessarily big, arcane words!) into disgust. I respect Donaldson’s vocabulary choices about as much as I respect Clive Cussler’s multiple uses of “Machiavellian” in one book.

5 thoughts on “Vocabulary Quiz

  1. I only knew a few of the ones you didn’t. (Probably from doing Free Rice vocab quizzes.) I haven’t read the books but was he maybe trying to make his writing sound like it’t set in an ancient, middle ages-type culture?

  2. I knew very few of those words! But my comment is kind of a side note – there’s a young girl at the Summer program I’m working at named Oriel. I had never heard that name before, and now I’ve seen the word, all in the course of a week. So crazy! I’m wondering where her parents would have encountered it to decide to name her that. It’s a really pretty and unique name to have though.

  3. I think thesaurus abuse is generally viewed as a no-no in novel writing, mostly because modern writers rarely have a formal enough voice to pull it off. You can create awful dissonance if your characters usually sound like frat boys and then occasionally throw in words like “plenipotentiary.” How do you know if your voice is too casual to use a word? If you had to look the word up in a thesaurus, it’s too casual.

  4. I knew about twenty. Oddly, “Chasuble” is a word I’ve looked up just recently, within the last two months.

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