A little after noon last Sunday, this aging logophile fell in love. It was a clear, crisp day in the city - a hint of diesel in the autumn air, a faraway honk from a pin-tailed Ford. Nothing suggested that I was about to experience one of those goose-bumping, spine-tingling, heart-fluttering moments of discovery that inspired Byron to write about Picasso speechless on a peak in Yucatan.
Then I stumbled over "diablerie."
Let me compose myself. Epiphanic discoveries are well known. The apple dropped on Newton, Saul took Exit 39 to Damascus, Faust ogled Helen, and that Greek fellow took a notable bath. These things happen. Writers know. This writer knows.
Many years go, browsing through the L section of a dictionary, I fell across "limicolous." It means "dwelling in mud." A bit later, I happened upon "mitotically." On an April afternoon I once embraced "otiose." Let us draw a beaded curtain over my affair with "omphaloskepsis." She was a belly dancer in a Cairo saloon. It was a brief affair. Enough!
This month's inamorata crept into my heart through an article by Paul Theroux in the Sunday New York Times. He was writing about Graham Greene. Right and wrong did not much interest the British novelist, but good and evil did: "He was a sucker for diablerie."
Diablerie! The noun dates from 1751. It means "black magic; sorcery; mischievous conduct or manner." Tell it to our kitten.
Now, to the point of today's dissertation: The principal purpose of the writing art is to transmit some thought - some image, idea, instruction, reprimand, minutes of a meeting - from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader. This demands, at the very least, a shared vocabulary, a common language. Talk to me not in Portuguese.
How many readers of the Times instantly grasped the meaning of "diablerie"? Half? Two-thirds? Ninety-eight percent? In this regard, what should be a writer's goal? To have every word perfectly understood? Dreadful thought! Must we bid farewell to limicolous? Goodbye, objurgatory? So long to the solfataric Senate? No way!
This is serious business. Last year a writer in the New Yorker referred to Aldous Huxley's macaronic tendency to drag in untranslated quotations. Huxley was part of a milieu that included the most glittering cenacle of his time.
A book critic in the New York Times commented that "we have always admired the samizdat writers of Russia." True. The Times' Alessandra Stanley watched a film of Oliver Stone interviewing Fidel Castro: "There is a brief moment when the "no pasaran' rhetoric falls away."
Two of the Times' op-ed stars are Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman. Last year Friedman bit into "hegemon" and would not let go. Dowd writes of Woody Allen's anhedonia and the Republicans' "pashmina safety net."
The Washington Post's Sunday book columnist is Michael Dirda; he liked a biography of P.G. Wodehouse for its "florilegium." He remarked upon a character who was "crapulous with drink."
In recent months, bewildered readers have written this column to complain of "a pronating problem," a "dirigiste approach," and a candidate's "forgivable shrekiekh." A Cabinet officer's misfortune aroused widespread "schadenfreude." Last April, Joe Klein commented in Time magazine that "Kerry's may be the most sclerotic presidential campaign since Bob Dole's." All clear?
Everyone who loves the written word is bound to love the unfamiliar word. We open the oyster and find a pearl. My thought for the day is to love these exotic jewels - to prize them, caress them, wear them in private correspondence - but to think for a second or two before yielding in print to the literary lures of diablerie.
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. His e-mail address is email@example.com.