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Rare Words
A new book lists 500 mots justes you didn't know you didn't know.

BY JESSE OXFELD | Any professional writer knows the frustration: There's a certain concept you're trying to express, a kind of feeling or an idea or a state of being, and you know there should be just the right word to nail it—if only you could come up with that word. You've got a phrase that does the trick, but it's clunky and messy, and it interferes with the flow of your sentence; you're convinced that if you just think hard enough eventually you'll remember that mot juste. But it never comes. And so you give up, convinced the right word simply doesn't exist.

But perhaps it does, and it's just not sufficiently well-known. In their new book Rare Words, avocational lexicographers Jan and Hallie Leighton, a father-and-daughter team, have collected 500 words they describe—somewhat oxymoronically—as "useful but arcane." For a word to be useful to a journalist—whose job, after all, is to render things into words that people will understand—can it also be arcane? Jan Leighton argues it can: "Today's rarity," he says, "is tomorrow's favorite word." Want an example? "As recently as three years ago, a mischievous new German transplant meaning 'delight in a friend's misfortune' was unknown and unpronounceable to most English speakers," he says. "Schadenfreude may still be unpronounceable (shah-den-FROY-duh), but today it is less of a novelty word among English speakers, and in certain circles, a staple." And wouldn't you like to be the one who popularizes the next Schadenfreude? (At least as much as you'd like to see something bad—not horrible, just unpleasant—happen to the guy who popularized the current one?)

Here are ten rare-but-useful words Hallie Leighton culled from the book especially for, along with sample sentences of our own. (Buy the book to read all 500 rare words; Rare Words is available directly from Levenger Press.)

Barmecide (BARH-mih-side)
n. a person who offers imaginary food or illusory benefits. adj. make-believe (as in Barmecide feast: Barmecide was a prince in Arabian Nights who served a beggar a feast of imaginary dishes and wine to test his humor; when the beggar played along, he was rewarded with a real feast).
Wait, you mean we can't have a huge tax cut, provide a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare, fight a war, and still not run a deficit? That George Bush is such a Barmecide.

basial (BAY-zee-uhl)
adj. pertaining to kissing.
Did David Gest really think he was kidding anyone with that grossly basial display at his wedding to Liza?

charientism (KAR-ee-un-tiz-um)
n. an elegantly veiled insult.
How wonderful! I never would have expected such clever charientisms from someone with such a limited education.

kakistocracy (kak-iss-TOK-ruh-see)
n. government by the worst citizens (kakistos is Greek for worst).
At least a plutocracy isn't a kakistocracy. Or at least not neccesarily.

peripeteia (pehr-ih-pih-TAY-uh)
n. a sudden change in events, esp. in a dramatic work. (In O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," the husband secretly pawns his watch and the wife cuts off and sells her hair so that each can buy the other a Christmas gift. Their gifts of a watch chain and a silver comb signal a peripeteia.)
In the latest peripeteia out of Turkey, that country's parliament rejected a plan for U.S. troops to be based there during an upcoming attack on Iraq, even after lengthy negotiations that seemed to put the deal back on track.

prelapsarian (pree-lap-SAYR-ee-un)
adj. pertaining to the period before Adam and Eve ate the apple and were banished from Eden.
Sadly, cocktail parties rarely seem to turn into nights of prelapsarian excess.

satyagraha (SUT-ya-GRUH-huh)
n. nonviolent noncooperation with evil; a policy of using nonviolent resistance to press for political reform, pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi and practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. and others (literally, "truth-firmness" in Sanskrit).
The satyagrahas held around the world several weeks ago protesting the upcoming war in Iraq were some of the largest such demonstrations ever.

solecism (SOL-ih-siz-um)
n. a violation of rules or conventions, esp. an error of grammar or idiom, or a breach in manners or propriety.
Wearing a pro-Bush t-shirt to one of those satyagrahas probably would have been a solecism.

sprezzatura (spret-sa-TOO-rah)
n. the art of doing a difficult thing so gracefully that it looks easy; an appearance of ease and nonchalance, even disdain. (In his 16th-century Book of the Courtier, the Renaissance manners maven Castiglione said that a gentleman should have sprezzatura, an appearance of aloofness and disdain.)
The folks who run do so with a charming and friendly sprezzatura that never crosses the line into aloofness.

thersitical (thur-SIT-ih-kul)
adj. loudmouthed; foulmouthed; scurrilous (after Thersites, a man who, according to Greek legend, was violent and scurrilous in speech).
He told people I spent a basial afternoon with her? What a thersitical lout!

Jan Leighton is an actor and a lifelong collector of rare words. Hallie Leighton, Jan Leighton's daughter, has worked for Random House and Alfred A. Knopf, translated Plato's Euthyphro, and is currently a freelance writer.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of


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