deodand n. (Law) English law (formerly) a thing that had caused a person's death and was forfeited to the crown for a charitable purpose: abolished 1862.
I suspect I’ll never use the word deodand. I don’t write historical fiction. But CAHD is reliable; he’ll send more words.
Let me explain.
CAHD (pron: cod) is my eldest brother. His full name is a lengthy nine syllables. As first-born son, he carries two middle names. At some point, my brother started referring to himself by his initials. His online messages stand out amongst the spelled-out names.
CAHD is seven years older than I am, and he left for university when I was only ten. After that, he rarely lived in the same city as the rest of the family. Now we are all spread out, literally from East to West Coasts. We come together for important occasions, most recently, the celebration of our parents’ 60th wedding anniversary.
On one of these festive occasions, CAHD and I must have talked about unusual words. CAHD is a prodigious reader and not averse to dropping a rare word into an otherwise casual conversation. As a writer, I reserve the back page of my notebook for words I’ve come across that are unfamiliar to me, or that I am (perversely?) determined to use.
Following our conversation, I shared with CAHD the address for a website that I enjoyed visiting. I recall the site as The International House of Logorrhea. It still uses that name, but as a subpage to its main banner, The Phrontistery, which means “a thinking place.” In addition to maintaining an alphabetical list of unusual words, The Phrontistery has other word lists categorized in intriguing ways: Divination and Fortune Telling, Manias and Obsessions, Killers and Killing and, my personal favourite, Forthright’s Forsoothery. Here, words can be found that are usually sprinkled liberally in a certain kind of inexpensive paperback. Gadzooks!
I know my record of CAHD’s offerings is incomplete. On the rare occasions when the word was familiar to me, I gleefully deleted it. Other words were culled in an effort to de-clutter my inbox. The words that remain arrived on busy days, were potentially useful to something I was writing, or were so obscure that they deserved a second look. Some words just begged the question: what the heck is CAHD reading?
Now and then, he anticipated my question. Churchill is the source of an extensive list of words including adventitious, divagate, and contumacious. As Churchill was a notable orator, and his collected writing can take up a good part of any bookshelf, this source did not surprise me. Last week, CAHD informed me that the word tatterdemalion was found in Norman Davies’ book, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe. Another Brit. Enough said.
Words come and go. I accept that. I don’t equate vocabulary with intellect or bemoan the loss of certain archaic words from everyday use. This isn’t a rant about whether, on average, people today know fewer words than people knew two generations ago, and what that might say about the education system or the rise of technology.
But as a writer, who often feels at a loss for words, I want to acknowledge that there is value in seeking out and reclaiming words that may have slipped from common usage. As the blogger at a website on lost vocabulary has put it, “finding just the right word is one of the most satisfying parts of the process. There is a sense of almost sublime transcendence when you have matched a phenomenon out there in the world with the perfect word.”
So when I’m stuck, I flip to the back of my notebook or to the messages from my distant brother CAHD. Sometimes I find inspiration. Sometimes I find diversion. Always, I hope that a word will match the occasion. At the very least, I am reminded that my job as a writer is not to choose “any old word,” if I can find a better one.
Here are four words from my notebook that I might reclaim one day:
elide vtr 1. omit (a vowel, consonant or syllable) by elision 2. Pass over in silence; ignore
otiose adj 1. producing no useful result 2. being at leisure 3. lacking use or effect
tenebrific adj 1. gloomy 2. causing gloom or darkness
bibulous adj 1. highly absorbent 2. fond of alcoholic beverages
Of the four, I’m pretty sure that bibulous will be the first one I use…