Do you know all the best words? Probably not. Even if you are a master of the English language, chances are good that lawyer and lexicographer Bryan Garner has got you beat when it comes to an expansive vocabulary and the technical skill to use it correctly.
In 2012, The New Yorker called Garner possibly “the world’s premier authority on grammar and usage in English.” He has written more than 20 books about usage and style, including the now-classic 2003 text Garner’s Modern English Usage, and is the editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary. He has debated language with some of the finest American writers and even facilitated a friendship built on linguistics between the deceased postmodern novelist David Foster Wallace and the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, both of whom were famously witty scribblers.
The ultimate word nerd, Garner wants to share his passion with, well, everyone. As his Twitter profile says, “Fall in love with language and it will love you back.” The only problem is that to understand this master, you’ll probably have to brush up on your English.
Take, for example, his April 26 tweet asking, “Can you think of somebody whose rodomontades feature lots of epizeuxis?”
While some may argue that the point of language is to communicate clearly—and not to obfuscate with rodomontades that boast lofty knowledge—Garner is not showing off. He’s reminding us of the linguistic riches that are free to all and that we rarely enjoy.
There are an awful lot of lovely words that we don’t use. Doing so could improve the tenor of public discourse, which is bemoaned even by US president Donald Trump, whose rodomontades haven’t done much for the art of elegant discussion.
Here are five fun and underused words—the first of which appears in Garner’s aforementioned tweet—to start incorporating into our discussions:
- “Gasconade,” noun: extravagant boasting. This noun was first used in English in 1709 and is derived from the french word for boasting, gasconner. The term comes from Gascony, a region in France where the people famously are braggarts. Garner no doubt employs this word because he’s prone to a bit of gasconade himself.
- “Hirquiticke,” noun: a horny youth. In 1623, this word was defined by Henry Cockeram in An English Dictionary as ”one past fourteene yeeres of age, beginning to bee moved with Venus delight.” Merriam-Webster today uses a somewhat less elegant formulation, defining hirquiticke as “a horny teenager.” You may not get a lot of chances to use this word, but do jump on any opportunity. For example, when broaching the delicate discussion of sex with a young person, reassure them that it’s natural to be a hirquiticke, but that they must nonetheless be responsible when acting on this sense. The word is derived from the Latin hircus, meaning goat-like, and is a very nice way to say “begynneth to be styrred with lechery.”
- “Schismatic,” adjective: separatist, dissenting. This 14th-century word is related to the term schism, or split. It’s derived from the Greek word skhismatikos, and was adopted into both Latin and French. Traditionally, the term was used in a religious context, specifically when sects split from a church, but it now has a more general meaning. So feel free to accuse your true love of being schismatic whenever they dissent or express a desire or opinion you don’t share.
- “Stochastic,” adjective: randomly determined, probabilistic. This word describes so much of postmodern life, referring to patterns that can be analyzed statistically but can’t be precisely predicted. The term was first used in English in the early 20th century in mathematics, where a “stochastic process” was one that involved an unknown variable, making it difficult to statistically predict an outcome. It derives from the Greek stochastikos, meaning skillful in aiming, and stochos, or target. With the 2020 US presidential elections soon upon us, there will be lots of polling and predicting going on, but your safest bet is to remember that the pundits know nothing, because the process is stochastic.
- “Peripatetic,” adjective: nomadic, itinerant. The word is derived from the Greek peripatein, meaning to walk back and forth, and began appearing in English in the 15th century. Although it sounds a bit like an insult, being peripatetic isn’t at all like being pathetic or peristeronic (the latter just means relating to pigeons, PS). It is simply related to wandering. The Greek philosopher Aristotle liked to walk and think at the same time, and use of Peripatetic—with a capital P—indicates a follower of Aristotle’s philosophy, an Aristotelian. Uncapitalized, it’s most often associated with traveling for work, so if you run into any wandering lexicographers like Garner, be sure to compliment their peripatetic efforts.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Gascony as a city in France. It is in fact a region in France.