Years ago, in my nonage, there was a nationally renowned political commentator who called himself William F. Buckley. I had many things in common with Mr. Buckley. We both came from large ( twelve kids) families. We were both interested in examining religion and philosophy, to see how , as ol’ sock-it-to-em Socrates said, to live a better life, as both an individual and a nation.
But many more things separated us. He was an east coast Catholic, I was a western Lutheran. He had a national newspaper column and a television program called Firing Line. I read newspapers and watched television. He was famous and I was a nobody — although I was only 13. Most importantly, he was a conservative, firmly entrenched in his own elite background. I considered myself a commoner, and a Gene Debs/Norman Thomas/Michael Harrington socialist. Well, later I did.
Yet in both his writings and his TV appearances, Mr. Buckley was a great champion of sesquipedalians – a big word meaning “big words.”
People don’t like other people who use big words. They don’t like them for the same reason they don’t like people who have big muscles: They think they’re showing off. In both cases, people are only sometimes right.
The millionaire son of a millionaire oil tycoon, Buckley’s vast family wealth and natural abilities gave him all the advantages of a sophisticated American/European education. He enjoyed getting liberals, leftists and Democrats on his program and ridiculing their statements, in a kind of slow gentlemanly debate that modern TV seldom tolerates. Many times his basic arguments were no more sophisticated than anything Rush Limbaugh says. But Buckley expressed them in such eloquent prose you were compelled to listen. It was fun.
It wasn’t only that government programs were ineffective, Buckley would argue, they were brazen attempts to “immanentize the eschaton.” (Immanent means inherent, and immanentizing is a theological doctrine about how the spirit of God lives in and through the world. The eschaton here means the end times of Christian teaching, the creation of heaven on earth.) This was a phrase he’d lifted from an obscure right wing writer named Eric Voegelin. So not only were Democratic (or Republican) attempts to make life better for the Average Joe doomed to fail, they were blasphemous in just trying to accomplish Good Things, because only the Church can do Good Things. (And by Church Buckley meant the Roman Catholic Church, and a pretty narrow pew therein.)
This remains a popular canard among conservatives to this day, except usually they don’t know any big words to express it. Instead they grunt that Jesus was against paying taxes to the government to help poor people, which he wasn’t.
Okay, I realized, politics aside, I may never be an elite east coast educated elite like Mr. Buckley. But I do have a dictionary. I can steal all those word he uses and make them mine. This is a great socialist endeavor, the redistribution of knowledge, as American as Ben Franklin establishing the first public library.
I started a list of all the unknown words Buckley used, adding them one by one. I read the dictionary. I took Latin in school, and although I can no longer read much of it, I do retain the ability to spot a Latin origin in many an obscure English word. (Keeping your own dictionary is not that unusual, many journalists and professional writers do so, for the same reason mechanics collect tools, even ones they may never use.)
The computer age has simplified both the keeping and creating of wordlists so much I am dumbfounded why people don’t have a bigger vocabulary. It’s easier than ever. And yet most people use the same kitchen words over and over instead of learning new ones. Imagine rappers like Nicki Minaj verbalizing her aggressions with Latinates instead of telling everyone to f-k off you mf. What a great boon to a great booty this would be!
Sadly, I realize this is not to be. Laziness is the norm. My friend Steve D. chastises me for my vocabulary, and brags that he refuses to look up new words. You shouldn’t have to, I keep telling him; a sesquipedalian skillfully used gives you its meaning in the sentence. Buckley could do this when he wanted to. Other times, he would snicker and sneer, delighted to watch his opponent squirm until they admitted “I don’t know what that word means.”
While I do not use vocabulary to be a bully, I remain unbowed in my appreciation of its expansion. So in his defense of words, I tip my hat to William F Buckley. May he rusticate in the Fields of Elysium.
[There is a contest with pecuniary reward for this malaise. Et docti cave!]