or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Here, in a recent Slate.com article about a Henry James novel, is a delicious word that you will probably never use:

In James' late and longiloquent novel, our protagonist is Lewis Lambert Strether, the middle-aged amanuensis and aspiring fiance of Mrs. Newsome, a wealthy widow who presides over the fictional manufacturing town of Woollett.

No, not "amanuensis", nice though it is: "longiloquent". How lovely! And how fitting!

You have certainly heard the word "grandiloquent", which, while perhaps not an everyday sort of word, is still something that crops up from time to time: it means, in a word, "bombastic", or, in a bunch of words, "speaking in a particularly pompous style". Its extraction is pretty obvious: Latin "grandis", "great", plus "loqui-", "to speak", as in "ventriloquism", the art of seeming to speak without using your speaking apparatus, literally "speaking from the belly" ("ventri-" being also the source of "ventral", as in the ventral fin of a fish, the one running along its underside, as opposed to the dorsal fin, the one running along its back).

So "longiloquence" is not, as it might be tempting to guess, the use of long words, but merely the act of speaking at great length. It's not even in the OED, though its adjectival form, "longiloquent", is, and that's labelled "rare". Go ahead and use these if they seem appropriate--that's what the language is there for--but be prepared for people to not know what you're talking about.

An "amanuensis", in case you didn't know, is someone who takes dictation, and is from Latin "manus", "hand", which shows up all over the place in such words as "manuscript" and "manufacture".

And finally, "bombastic", which I used up there, is tremendously interesting. It started life as Greek "bombux", a silkworm, which Latin naturally stole and transformed into "bombyx", with the same meaning. The word was shortly transformed into "bombax", which could refer to both silk and cotton: this (after a few more transformations and a trip through French) led to English "bombazine", a kind of (originally silk, then silk-and-wool, then cotton-and-wool or just cotton) fabric. Another use for cotton, for stuffing or padding things, took its name from "bombax" to become French "bombace", and this is the word that led to "bombast", which is to say that the language in question is as heavily padded as an armchair.


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