It was just before Election Day, and a lady of my close acquaintance was reading about the gubernatorial election in Florida.
"What," she inquired, "is a satrap?"
"Ah," said I, trying to be helpful, "a satrap is like a sachem, except for the hairdo."
She rolled her eyes, and we looked things up. The first satrap was the governor of a province in ancient Persia. The first sachem was the chief of an Indian tribe in colonial New England. Manifestly, these days Gov. Jeb Bush is a re-elected satrap, and Sen. Edward Kennedy is a family sachem, and the question for today is, Why do writers toss us such out-of-town words?
The answer, of course, is that writers throw us sachems and satraps for the sheer hell of it. In the same fashion, chickens lay double-yolk eggs and the guy on the trumpet goes up an extra octave in the coda. There is great satisfaction to be had from getting familiar with an unfamiliar word.
William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative columnist-novelist-polymath, is the leading apostle of the unfamiliar. He wrote a column in September defending the legalization of marijuana. "Experience," said my good friend, "is teaching that however ill-advised it may be to take the drug, it is less well-advised to continue to arrest 10,000 people every week for a practice or indulgence of such exiguous social consequence."
Exiguous? It means "small, minor, inadequate, excessively scanty." Why did not my brother speak simply of "little social consequence"? He cannot help himself. He is as comfortable with "exiguous" as Tiger Woods with an old putter. When he is charged with using unfamiliar words, he pleads not guilty: "They're not unfamiliar to me."
There is much to be said for the Buckley approach. If a writer discards the exact but unfamiliar word in favor of the almost exact but generally familiar word, he gives his readers less than his best effort. He deliberately dumbs down. At the same time, there is even more to be said in favor of writing in a vocabulary that readers understand.
Another of my brothers in the pundit racket, George F. Will, has a great affection for the four-dollar word. In the presidential campaign of 2000, Al Gore repeatedly said of the Democrats that "we can do better, we can do better." Said Will: "Gore, a passionate recycler, got that trope by reaching back to John Kennedy's 1960 campaign."
Gore got a what? He got a trope. That is, he used a familiar figure of speech.
The New York Times last year carried an item on daylight-saving time as it is observed in rural Indiana. It appears that many farmers have refused for decades to go through the ritual of "spring forward, fall back." Said the Times correspondent: "Now that may be changing, with farmers and other traditional daylight-saving opponents losing ground to the avatars of the high-tech economy."
Losing ground to what? Several centuries ago an avatar was "an incarnation of a Hindu god." By extension, an avatar has become "an embodiment or personification, as of a principle, attitude, or view of life." Those of us in the writing business seem to be losing ground all the time, but those Indiana farmers are in worse shape than we are. They are losing ground to avatars, for Pete's sake.
Jonathan Nicholas, a columnist for the Portland Oregonian, tried his hand as a part-time teacher at Beaumont Middle School. The experience led him to a great idea: Teachers should have a right to pick their own students. Given this authority, a teacher could get rid of the troublemakers, banish the chronic whiners, and expel any kid who wouldn't work. "Farewell," cried this former teacher, "Farewell, faineants!" Irresponsible idlers! That's what Merriam-Webster calls faineants. My mother would have called them loafers.
Don't get me wrong about hard words. I love them. They leave me ensorcelled. And if a word or phrase is overly recondite or esoteric, so much the better. You, too, may be at least a satrap, a sachem, a pandit or a pundit. And if critics call you a gascon or a fanfaron, you will know that rodomontade is not their bag. All clear?
Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.