It's 1am and I'm reading, chuckling along with William Zinsser (The Writer who Stayed) when the word peristaltic halts my progression. I circle it (as is my custom), reach for my phone, and open the WordBook dictionary app only to discover that there is no peristaltic in WordBook.
It upends me.
I google it and find peristalsis. I glance back at the WordBook screen and spy, scrolling across the top of the app, suggested words of which peristalsis is one: 'the process of wavelike muscle contractions of the alimentary tract that moves food along'.
Surprise is the most refreshing commodity in nonfiction writing. Snoozing readers are startled awake to find that a writer is actually trying to entertain them. I strive for that moment. My style consists mainly of plain one-syllable and two-syllable words, but I’m always listening for the interloper from some distant corner of my education or my travels— not a word that’s trying to be “fancy,” but one that’s doing precision work.*
Zinsser (one of the most influential editors in the world) writes about words as 'unexpected visitors' and still remembers one of his guests from fifty years ago:
Medicine is particularly rich in terms begging to go out in public: all those words like sclerosis that doctors toss about so freely to inform us of some new clogging or erosion. Sclerotic is a perfect adjective for political punditry. Fifty years later I still remember a sentence by S. J. Perelman referring to the peristaltic prose of the columnist Max Lerner.*
For years, I've entertained unexpected visitors. When a word appears unannounced I circle and (most times, immediately) research it. It's more neurosis than habit. I must know. It's also almost entirely superfluous. I rarely remember the definition. But, used enough (or, read enough) one might stick. I generally have to thrust one awkwardly into a conversation before I begin to really know its meaning and, when I do shove it toward my listener, it's usually perceived as wooden as it sounds. But the doing is the remembering part. Which is why I started a small series on this blog of words that I read each week that I don't know. I've collected them for a long time, going back (in the WordBook App) for a few years (thankfully, my WordApp bookmark database has survived many upgrades). WordBook not only tracks your history of researched words but also allows you to bookmark specific words.
The bookmark feature also allows you to write notes within each defined word. In my notes, I add the title of the book (or the article) where I read the word so that I can go back and read it again in context. Sometimes, a word will have more than one resource which means I've stumbled across the word twice (or more) without truly comprehending its meaning. For example, this past week I read the word capacious in the novel Look Homeward, Angel and forgot that I had read this before in The Solace of Open Spaces. As I investigate and then comment on a word, I abbreviate the book's title to maintain my flow of reading and keep moving, a peristaltic process. (It's embarrassing how many times I discover the same 'new word').
For each 'unexpected visitor', I'll also list the sentence it appears in, for context. For example:
- capacious: large in capacity
'Or, he would recite or read poetry, for which he had a capacious and retentive memory.' - Look Homeward, Angel | Thomas Wolfe
'The auction was held during the height of the lambing season in one of two capacious sheds used for that purpose.' - The Solace of Open Spaces | Gretel Ehrlich
I've thought about posting this type of series here on my blog for some time. I've avoided it because this practice may come across (to some people) as pretentious. This perception, at first, paralyzed me, until finally, (frustrated by wilting under the opinion of others -an all too common occurrence-), the thought settled into insouciance. It is with such blithe unconcern that I begin this series of new-to-me words that I discover each week. The words will always derive from my current reading and never contrived for appearances sake. The exercise (no doubt) will be appreciated, and read, by none but me, but perhaps merely posting them here will simply become a reliable mnemonic device to aid and abet my feeble memory.
* Quotes from William Zinsser, The Writer who Stayed