When The Words Just Get In The Way

When The Words Just Get In The Way

David Foster Wallace used the term “snoot” to describe the sorts of people who torture themselves and others by relentlessly calling attention to infelicities of language.  I suspect Wallace  was simultaneously expressing the folly in swimming upstream against the tide of commonly accepted (mis)usage while admitting that no true snoot can nod, smile, and walk away from a conversation in which a person is described as nauseous rather than nauseated, disinterested rather than uninterested, as one who has honed in on rather than homed in on.

In the same fashion that a person raised with great wealth can ask for sympathy due to a life held captive in a golden cage, the snoot can point to the injury done him day-after-day by speakers determined to play fast and loose with language.  Snoots are reviled for doing what they seem incapable of not doing.

No sympathy?

I don’t snoot friends or civilians because I have made more than my share of mistakes and have been mortified when corrected.  Pride certainly went before the fall in my case, and dangerous snootery may have been nipped in the bud fairly early on.

As an early example, just when I thought my active vocabulary was more than adequate, a word, lugubrious, came at me sideways, marginally out of context, a word that I sensed had authority and agency, but a word just beyond my grasp.

I probably should have looked it up.  But no.

I must have been about thirteen when I ran into lugubrious, one of the hundreds of words I never bothered to look up, counting on my keen ability to read contextually, and so spent the next decade misusing the word on a fairly consistent basis.  That is to say, I didn’t continuously use the word, but I was consistent in using it incorrectly.

Listen to the stretch and pull of the word said with any sort of emphasis.  Luh- GOOO- brious.  Sounds sort of oily, no?  So that’s where I went.  Every person described as lugubrious I took to be oily.   Dickens, for example, wrote works that are rife with lugubrious characters who are more than a little oily, and I frequently found the word attached to undertakers or morticians, who seemed an oily lot to me.  It was only when I read a reference to a lugubrious love song that I was brought up short.  I suppose there are conditions in which one might refer to love as oily, but even I sensed I must have been flying through language by the seat of my pants once again.  It was but the work of minutes with a good dictionary  to realize my mistake and to find that if I wanted to tag someone as terminally oily, ripe with greasy moralizing smugness, the words I needed were unctuous or oleaginous.  If I was after fawning, boot-licking, smarmy sycophants, I’d have to find some middle ground between servile and obsequious.

So, lugubrious.   Not oily.

Lugubrious is a very useful descriptor for exaggerated, heavy, gloomy, melancholy that draws attention to itself.  I would have been better prepared for life if anyone had the wit to suggest that Eeyore, A.A. Milne’s passive-aggressive, terminally depressive donkey, is a lugubrious self-pitying sinkhole, sucking joy and oxygen from the Hundred Acre Wood, not that I retain strong feelings about his mopey string of laments predictably something along the lines of,  “Pay no attention to me.  I’ll just eat thistles and sit here by myself “.

Sorry.  Lost focus for a moment.

Today, at an advanced age, I am delighted to find that words new to me still pop up, often in otherwise entirely accessible accounts.  An article on the furor surrounding the current election, particularly the seamier scandals, made use of the word, louche, a term I’d found earlier in this example from an article entitled, “Gloria Vanderbilt Gets Kinky”, found at The Daily Beast in June, 2009:

“Eventually, this short, louche novel that began with warmth and zest and cheekiness, wanders around aimlessly in magenta caftans.”

Personification is one thing; a novel, even a cheeky novel, wandering around in purple caftans is a different order of figurative language.

I’d seen the word used to describe seedy neighborhoods or sordid confessionals and intuited that louche probably had something to do with things being seedy or sordid, and once again, my keen contextual reading served me well.  Louche is generally defined as disreputable or indecent.  OK, useful enough, but, with only a few moments of reflection, it occurred to me that we have a mother lode of words within easy reach that travel near indecent or disreputable.  Sordid and seedy, to begin with.

To return to the unsavory (that works!) neighborhood, an obvious choice of descriptor might be squalid, reminding fans of J.D. Salinger of Esme, the indelible character who in asking a writer to send her a story declares, “I prefer stories about squalor.” Squalid hovels are wretched, shabby, generally insalubrious.  Applied to persons rather than places, squalid shoots us to sleazy, tawdry, cheap, foul, degenerate, ignominious, base, seamy … surely a more than adequate supply of adjectives to meet the needs of almost any conversation.

So, why louche?  Who really needs it?

I would have chucked it quickly had I not done what I had so rarely done, actually gone to the Oxford Dictionary and tracked down the origin of the word.  It’s French, as anyone might have guessed, but derived from the Latin, luscus, having impaired vision.  When the French got hold of it, they used louche to mean-cross-eyed or squinting, and some of us may remember when folks squinted at unseemly behavior or looked cross-eyed at those things that were considered offensive.

La and Voila.

There is an outside chance that I’ll use the word lugubrious sometime in the next decade (May the fates given me ten more years to spout snootily!), but I can’t see myself getting all louche on novels or even on Vanderbilts.  Still, it’s good to know it’s there in case I find myself in a dimly lit nightclub, sitting in a banquette with deeply cracked upholstery, avoiding contact with walls covered in crumbling faded maroon velvet, feet sticking to the yellowed tile floor, hoping to catch sight of the sagging remains of a once vibrant chanteues, a discarded mobster’s moll.

How louche would that be!



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