Thursday, August 2, 2007

A Lunch of New Words

I'm reading an excellent nonfiction book at the moment, and engaging in that healthiest of tasty little pastimes, noting down words that I have never heard (or read) before, along with ones I know I've read a hundred times but am unsure of the exact meaning of. Of course, this activity is enabled through moderate consumption of Green & Black's organic chocolate (dark, mint-filled squares in my case) and tea. Karen and I share a passion for Green & Black's. But back to my words, whose definitions I've arbitrarily plucked from either Oxford's English Dictionary or the American Heritage Dictionary.

My author, almost all of whose books I've read and whose wordsmithing is usually flawless, littered the word faience many times over several pages, when describing ancient, exquisite tombs, shrines, and mosques he encountered in a three-thousand-mile journey through China, the 'Stans, and the Middle East. I thought that he had to reuse it so often because it must describe something so absolutely specific that no other word could do, but now I'm not sure. Thoughts?

faience: (OED) Fr. probably an appellative use of the proper name Fayence, Faenza in Italy, one of the chief seats of ceramic industry in the 16th century.
"A general term comprising all the various kinds of glazed earthenware and porcelain."
e.g.: "The mosaic floors and faienced walls convey even today an image of perfection." --Koestler

Chiaroscuro is one I've run into so many times that I decided it's high time I looked it up: (OED) clear, bright.
1. style of pictorial art in which only the light and shade, and not the various colours, are represented; black-and-white, or dark brown and white
2. The treatment or disposition of the light and shade, or brighter and darker masses, in a picture.
3. Used of poetic or literary treatment, criticism, mental complexion, etc., in various obvious senses, as mingled 'clearness and obscurity,' 'cheerfulness and gloom,' 'praise and blame,' etc.
5. Partly revealed and party veiled.

Definition number 5 reminds us of where poetry springs from: looking at words, objects, and meanings in new lights. I am so pleased with that definition, partly because it's finally given me a title for an essay that until now was stuck with something hopelessly bland.

Two others, the first I didn't know the meaning of, and the second I felt in need of defining to myself more clearly, again after running into it for several years, both definitions from AHD, which is wonderfully practical if not quote so poetic as the OED:

caravanserai: (in AHD as caravansary)
1. An inn built around a large court for accommodating caravans along trade routes in central and western Asia.
2. A large inn or hostelry. In both senses also called serai.

callow: Lacking adult maturity or experience; immature: a callow young man.

Don't you find that one of the great satisfactions of reading really good writers is that you stumble across words either rarely used, or words used well for the first time?


John Cowan said...

It's not quite on point, but consider looking at Webster's Daily, interesting definitions from Webster 1828.

Karen M said...

Delicious! In fact, both faience and chiaroscuro would be great names for chocolate flavors... don't you think?

"Faience" could include minuscule particles of gold...

Jeff W said...

Well, Wikipedia says this about faience: "Faience describes Islamic and European tin-glazed earthenware, and has been extended to describe the ceramic faience of pre-Dynastic and Pharaonic Egypt" so maybe it's a little more specialized.

I agree completely that finding those rare words is one of the joys of reading great writers. I've come across irredentism, psephology, and chthonic—OK, they're not as evocative as faience and chiaroscuro but it's still interesting to stumble across them in a sentence. Occasionally, it seems. obscure words enjoy some currency due to current events (witness kakistocracy). And I still recall the delight I felt when I heard a brilliant lecturer toss out the word desuetude. OK, I'm in the mood for something jentacular so I'll quit here.

Introvert Girl said...

>>In fact, both faience and chiaroscuro would be great names for chocolate flavors... don't you think?<<

Great idea! Maybe we can start selling candy companies on funky, underused words for flavors.

Jeff, I've always had a secret passion for 'desuetude.' Such a word is like a fine old port in a dusty bottle ...

Jeff W said...

I agree—there is something thoroughly delightful about the word desuetude, although I have to confess, I can never remember how to pronounce it. (Well, I guess there might be a reason or two for that.)