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Puttin' on the Style

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 3/17/08


         The death of William F. Buckley last month sent the writers of obituaries and appreciations to their dictionaries in search or Buckleyisms they could drop in by way of homage. The New York Times headed its page-one obituary "William F. Buckley Jr., 82, Dies: Sesquipedalian Spark of Right.” Not surprisingly, that mystified quite a few readers, particularly since the article underneath it didn't give the game away until paragraph 24, where it finally let on that sesquipedalian means "characterized by the use of long words." Still, if you're going to have people scratching their heads over a word in somebody's obituary, who better than his?

         I counted more than a dozen of these stories that used the word sesquipedalian, though most weren't as coy as the Times about explaining the word. In Newsweek, Evan Thomas described Buckley as "a lover of big words (a sesquipedalian, as he might say)." And indeed Buckley did call himself that on occasion (though he knew that sesquipedalian can only be an adjective when you use it to describe someone -- it's not a noun like Episcopalian). The word is particularly apt for him, and not just because of his fondness for polysyllables. It was coined by the Roman poet Horace, who referred slightingly to poets who use sesquipedalia verba, which literally means words a foot-and-a-half long. The word was Horace's little joke, an example of the very thing it was ridiculing, and it has been tinged with mockery ever since. So it accords nicely with the slightly self-mocking persona that Buckley fashioned for himself. The slouch, the drawling patrician voice, the arching eyebrows and the darting lizard tongue, not to mention the ostentatiously overcooked language itself -- it all served to avert the irritation that a highfalutin vocabulary might otherwise have engendered. We Americans tend to be tough on erudition that's untempered by humor, at least when it comes from one of our own. Unfairly or not, we'll tax George Will with pedantry for using a word that we'll receive with an indulgent smile when it comes from Christopher Hitchens. Use a fancy word in public, and you risk being accused of affectation, elitism, or simply what people used to call  "puttin' on the style."

         With the exception of Senator Pat Moynihan, I can't think of any modern public figure but Buckley who managed to allay those impressions while still getting people to take him and his language seriously. David Frye and Robin Williams could get his voice dead-on, but his verbal style is surprisingly hard to capture, even for those who were close to him. In his appreciation of Buckley, National Review's Jonah Goldberg described him affectionately as "the peripatetic proselytizer of polysyllabism." But that doesn't sound like Buckley -- it brings to mind Spiro Agnew disgorging one of the prefabricated chunks like "nattering nabobs of negativism" that his speechwriter William Safire used to cook up for him. It's the same sort of thing that Bill O'Reilly does when he overenunciates words like "bloviate" and "opine" -- a big-word buffoonery that actually implies a disdain for language. These are people who choose their words as if they were shopping for lawn ornaments.

         There are people do this polysyllabic wordplay more engagingly -- Safire, for example, ever since he's been filing under his own byline. But this is just a weekend diversion for Safire -- he doesn't talk like that on Meet the Press. Whereas Buckley's devotion to recondite words was profound and passionate -- and sometimes immoderate. Word-collectors always have to tread a fine line between flattering their readers' erudition and basking in their own, and Buckley couldn't always keep his balance He had a weakness for what the critic H. W. Fowler described as Wardour Street words, after the street in Soho where Londoners used to shop for decorative bric-a-brac. He couldn't resist using catechize in place of question or grill, vaticination for forecast, estop for stop, and eo ipso for "in and of itself."

         Of course he would have said that those words had nuances that were absent in their everyday synonyms, and that using them encouraged people to stretch their vocabularies. He wrote once that asking someone to avoid uncommon words is like "advising a composer that he may not use diminished chords in his next symphony." That's fair enough. But reading Buckley, you sometimes wished that he had confined his composing to the white keys. "A flotilla of missiles could be estopped in mid-air" -- did estopped really do something there that stop wouldn't have?[1]

         Or take the time he worked albescent into a description of the sea in an account he wrote for People in 1980 about crossing the Atlantic in a sailboat. It was an elegant touch, particularly for readers of the magazine whose Latin was up to recognizing that the word meant whitish.[2] But even for them, albescent doesn't conjure up a specific shade of white the way a concrete word like chalk or frost or ivory does. That's the price you pay for using sesquipedalian words -- the higher they soar, the further removed they are from the world of feeling and sensation on the ground below. And as Horace said, you have to set them aside if you want to touch the heart.[3]

         Buckley had trouble renouncing that language, and the failure came at a cost. His penchant for lexical bling-bling helped make him a cultural personage, but it also left him a lesser writer than his gifts might have enabled him to become. Still, the woods are full of gifted writers, and there was only one of him.

1. Buckely used estop at least 14 times in his writings, but few if any of those uses seem to have either the sense "plug up" (which the OED describes as archaic), or the legal sense of "be precluded by one's own previous act or declaration from doing or alleging something." Most often it just seems an elegant variant of stop, a usage for which the OED gives only a single citation, calling it "rare." As affectations go, it's a pretty harmless one.

2. This is the only instance I have found of Buckley's using albescent in its literal sense (the word is common in botany and zoology, but otherwise extremely rare). In several other contexts, he uses it to mean "becoming clear" or "shining out more conspicuously," as he described the meaning in The Right Word: "an albescent technology," "an albescent tribute." This meaning is not given in any dictionary I'm aware of, and I haven't found any other writer who uses the word that way. But it certainly could come to mean that, if more writers took to using it.

3. …tragicus plerumque dolet sermone pedestri.
Telephus et Peleus, cum pauper et exul uterque
proicit ampullas et sesquipedalia verba,
si curat cor spectantis tetigisse querela.
Ars Poetica, 95-98

A tragic character grieves in everyday language. Telephus and Peleus, when they are poor and in exile, cast aside paint-pots [i.e., bombast] and foot-and-a-half-long words, if they want to touch the heart of the spectator with their lamentations.

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.