Plenty of other writers can pop open the champagne and delight my soul. There’s the charm and urbanity of Fitzgerald: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Next in today’s lineup is the barebones Hemingway: “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more” (One of the most elegant sentences in a language full of elegant sentences). Anthony Burgess opens his novel Earthly Powers with this character-crowded line: “”It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” In A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin offers this gleaming brief dialogue: “And how does God speak to you?” “In the language of everything that is beautiful.”
Since childhood, the prose and verse of a thousand word-vintners — poets and novelists, historians and biographers, essayists and commentators, with works ranging from The Velveteen Rabbit to War And Peace — have frequently left me as roaring as a sailor on shore leave or as tipsy as Aunt Genevieve after her third glass of sherry.
The grand master of such intoxication is, of course, William Shakespeare. Read Will’s sonnets aloud, and those fermented iambs and pentameters can cause the floor to pitch. We drink down the plays, even those scenes or speeches where the dazzling, archaic language seems as foreign as a bishop in a bordello, in great draughts of finely crafted English ales and liquors, dust-cutters that send us reeling to the exits inebriated by the Bard’s wordplay and wishing that such language daily galloped into our ears and so wittily fired our tongues.
One man similarly drunken on language is Peter Bowler, author of a three-volume series: The Superior Person’s Book of Words, The Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird and Wondrous Words, and The Superior Person’s Third Book of Well-Bred Words. In these books, which the author has now collected in a single volume, The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words (David R. Godine, Publisher, 2016, 384 pages, $24.95), Bowler introduces us to unusual words and how to deploy them to impress our loved ones, to befuddle those requiring befuddlement, and to insult our enemies, while at the same time leaving us laughing on every page.
Below are a few samples of Bowlerisms:
• Hypnopaedia n.: Training or instruction during sleep. “Good morning, class! Are we to start today with the usual half hour of hypnopaidia?”
• Revetment n.: A sloping structure, of masonry, timber, etc., intended to act as a retaining wall to support a terrace, the bank of a river, the side of a railway cutting, or other swelling protuberance. “Ah, Mrs. Zaftig, how I admire your revetment!”
• Sustentacular adj.: Supporting or maintaining. (From the Latin sustentare, to hold up.) “Ah, Mrs. Zaftig, we meet again! Goodness me, your revetment is indeed sustentacular today!”
• Bisulcate adj.: Cloven-hoofed. “I don’t know about Bastian being the devil, but given those shoes he wears I wouldn’t be surprised to find that he was bisulcate.”
• Prestidigitation n.: Sleight of hand. Literally, “quick fingering.” “My magic skills are getting better, Desiree; how about coming into my room for a little prestidigitation?”
• Proem n.: A prolegomenon, prolusion, prelude, introduction, foreword, or exordium.
• Williwaw n.: A sudden and powerful downdraft of wind moving violently down the slope of a mountainous coast. You could so characterize your father’s post-prandial snores as he reclines, comatose, in his armchair before the television.
• Zygosis n: The conjugation, or joining together, of two sex cells. “Convince the shy couple that when they sit down with the priest to discuss the wedding ceremony they should check that the zygosis occurs straight after the signing of the vows.”
• Lazaretto n.: A hospital or house for the victims of plague or other quarantinable diseases (originally leprosy). Yes, another nice term for your brother’s bedroom.
• Basta. Enough. If I proceed in this fashion, you might wonder whether I was suffering from necrencephalus or stricken with a severe case of logorrhea.
By now, you surely get the picture. Head unbowed, a smile on my lips, a song in my heart, I sway before you a self-confessed word drunkard, a logophile, a bibliophile, a linguaphile who seeks no cure, no Twelve Step Program to free him from his addiction. Take umbrage with me if you must, pity me if you are inclined, reject me as you will. But if you are a fellow traveler, then you know the drill. Pour me another glass of verbs, stir in a tonic of nouns and adjectives — light on the adjectives, if you please — and baby, I’m ready to party the night away.