Judging a Book by its Quirk Words

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As much as speed-reading is in vogue, speed-learning unfamiliar words is still a rather less flaunted ability. Perhaps because it is harder to define.

Does learning a word mean acquainting yourself with its first meaning, with all its meanings, with its pronunciation, its origins, its examples and seeing its effect as you apply it in an appropriate setting? Learning has some degree of knowing as its goal. Can it be said that you know a word if, after having supposedly learned it, you have never again thought of it? (If your answer is yes, you haven’t ever attempted to learn a foreign language, and failed.)

Some words we get for free as we grow up; some we get for cheap by osmosis.

The setting often aids us: if I tell you of a milky-white small roundish object called X, and say it’s on a necklace, you might think it’s a type of pearl; if I say it’s on a plate, you might think it’s type of rice. But it could have been ivory in the first instance, and salt in the second. You can’t be sure, unless you’re sure of the word’s meaning.

Life is too short and language too multitudinous for us to know every word in every book we pick up. In fact, I am disappointed if I have failed to find a single interesting word in a text: unknown, referential, inventively used, made-up, altered—I am open to being surprised. Banal word-strings leave me with a sense of wasted time.

(In the strictest sense this can hardly occur, so I’ve set some minimum requirements for interesting words.)

In most cases, after having marked up my reading, I am left with numerous circled words which might merit investigation—and only a fraction of which will. That fraction is what I call the quirk words of a book.

Taken as a list, the quirk words can say a lot about a book: they cluster around the subject matter, they gravitate towards borrowings from the language in which the book was written (if not English), they’re dated to match the described era or the era in which the book was written.

This is not particularly surprising. A quirk list of a book varies from person to person, exhibiting the vocabulary deficiency of the reader with respect to that particular book. However, assuming we’re referring to fairly well-rounded readers, most of the words on each quirk list will be relatively rare in English overall (Frequency Bands 1–4 in the OED). These are the subject-related, the regional, the colloquial or the technical words—and each implies a specific application and context, narrowing down the kind of text it may be sensibly found in.

How about an example?

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Here is my quirk list for a certain book. From it, can you deduce:

  • which language the book was originally written in (not English)?
  • what is the overall thrust of the subject matter or its undertone?

(Answers and analysis below.)

Band 4 contains the more common words, Band 2 the least common and therefore least likely to be recognised on average—although that classification can be deceptive. Sometimes a word that “would be unknown to most people” in Band 2 is what you think it is (e.g temeritous means full of temerity) and sometimes an “obvious” word is included in my quirk list because of its secondary meaning (e.g. historiate not as in to narrate history, but as in to decorate an illuminated manuscript with depictions of people, animals, or narrative scenes).

Band 4:

albumen, aliment, anthropometry, auricular, basilisk, benzoin, carillon, convolvulus, dilatory, encyclical, ephemeris (emepherides), firebrand, grape-shot, guano, lepidopteran, mastic, patrimony, phthisis, plaint, respire, turpitude

Band 3:

antiphrasis, auto-da-fé, basso profondo, Carlovingian, cataplasm, ciborium, cortège, enlace, erethism, frangipani, gastralgic, gateau, girandole, historiate, Languedocian, monstrance, mucilaginous, opuscule, ordure, palaeographer, palingenetic, plantigrade, tenebrous, trebuchet

Band 2:

adonize, brodequin, chancography, chiromancer, Corybant, empyreuma, exorable, galvanoplasty, lactescent, oliban, pulverulence, rutilant, temeritous

Just glancing through, you might notice the preponderance of borrowings from a certain language.

Indeed: auto-da-fé, brodequin, Carlovingian, cortège, gateau, girandole, Languedocian, oliban, trebuchet, come from or through the French, which makes it likely the book was originally written in French (it was).

Getting at the book’s themes requires having a vague idea of which sphere of life the words belong to. Here are some groupings:

  • auto-da-fé, ciborium, encyclical, monstrance (ecclesiastical),
  • ephemeris, chiromancer, Corybant, basilisk (mystical/mythical),
  • firebrand, patrimony (political), and trebuchet, grape-shot (war),
  • mucilaginous, ordure, guano (unpleasantness), and cataplasm, phthisis (illness),
  • albumen, aliment, gastralgic, gateau, lactescent (food-related),
  • empyreuma, erethism, lepidopteran, palingenetic, plantigrade, respire (biology),
  • benzoin, frangipani, mastic, oliban (perfumes).

Am I right, you’re not thinking Romance or Children’s or Science Fiction? And it’s unlikely to be a Dictionary because the quirk list would be more varied. What else? A research paper on life in medieval France? But the vocabulary is too modern for that, indeed with a bit of luck you might end up thinking fin de siècle, which would lead you to Decadent Movement or a similar idea, and that would be about as far you could go.

The title of the book is Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales by Léon Bloy (1846–1917). It is an anthology of short stories that are part social satire, part drama, part mystery, part horror with strong religious undertones.

Of the above words, turpitude best describes the thrust of Bloy’s stories. Grotesque is a close second:

In the face, she resembled a fried potato rolled in grated cheese. Her hands inclined one to think that she had “dug up her great-grandmother,” as a Scandinavian proverb puts it.
In sum, her person exhaled the odour of the sixth-floor landing of a twentieth-rate furnished lodging-house.

(Translation by Brian Stableford.)

Judging a book by a quirk list is the opposite of judging a book by the significant words that appear most frequently. I remember reading about an experiment where a book’s words would be alphabetised, and you’d skim-read the whole three-hundred or so pages, from A to Z, to get a sense of its content (reference, anyone?).

Seemingly useless.

Until you realise that whole pages of lips, eyes, touch, hands, finger probably mean you’re reading Romance, and that whole passages of sea-related words mean you’re reading a romance set by the sea, and that the multiple croissants and gateaux and the repeating name of a town in Normandy means one of the characters is a baker and the plot is set in France, and the clothing words tells you in which era, etcetera, etcetera.

Both the recurring significant words and the quirk words are examples of extremes: the former are the foundation of any book, the latter are the frills. And, like with any building, where you can tell what’s being built by looking at the foundations or what’s been built by looking at the gables, these two word groups outline the book’s setting. (They don’t tell you what the façade looks like or what’s inside, i.e. the sentence structure or the plot.)

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Perhaps I have been unfair to Bloy by presenting him through such a “difficult” quirk list. Let me rectify that.

I enjoyed his writing for its colourful language (indebted to the Symbolists, the Naturalist, the Decadents in general), even though the stories often centred on the unkindest cuts between friends and family, between those standing and those on their knees, between the hopeful and the hopeless. Despite that hideous quirk list, Bloy manages to speak of flowers and light and the imagination in softer tones. For example take the following quotes:

  • Like convolvulus, the flowers of his soul only bloomed in the shade.
  • I shall become as complete a stranger as the unknown drama sleeping in the limbo of a novelist’s imagination.
  • One had, in any case, a bag full of fruits that resemble stars, picked by the handful in the luminous forest, and one did not doubt the human species.
  • Her heart had been cultivated like a kitchen garden of limited extent, in which the smallest strips were calculated for the cooking-pot: no useless flowers whose frivolous brightness brings no profit; at the very most a few pansies or violets bordering the beans and salad vegetables, in order not to exile poetry completely.

So the writing is refined, even if the messages are brutal.

Ultimately, Tarantula’s Parlour studies our untamed, baser impulses, which we (pretend to) strive to reign in. As such, Bloy shows up human nature, and it’d be a shame to dismiss him and turn away. After all, you have to know what the Devil looks like before you can smite him.

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

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