Observing Editor bio photo

Observing Editor

One adventuresome atom

Email Twitter

One of the appealing characteristics of the English language is its fearlessness in appropriating vocabulary from any source. You can easily find Latin, Greek, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Irish, Dutch, and Spanish words canonized within the vocabulary of English, though somewhat changed by the process.

These words are frequently borrowed as opaque wholes, without related words to set up helpful associations in the mind of a speaker. So, for example, the word lugubrious is unique in English, standing underived from any other word. You either know what it means, or you don’t, and there’s no way to figure it out unless you have been subjected to the tribulations of a classical education.

If you have had the pleasure of reading Catullus in Latin (and it is worth the while), you would have run across the verb lugeo in Carm. 39 referring to mourning, allowing you to infer that a person with a lugubrious physiognomy is a pretty gloomy-looking customer, even if it is a put-on.

The Lady: Is it Halloween already?

The Genilman: Naw, baby. ‘s my new look. I am the king of the night.

The Lady: King of the night?

The Genilman: You ever think about how beautiful the moon is, when it’s all big and clouds blow over it? Over at the club we talk a lot about the moon, and the night. Space, death, y’know, the heavy stuff.

The Lady: Uh-huh.

The Genilman: So, you gotta put on your heavy-thinking clothes to deal with that. It’s like a crime-scene cleaner– can’t wear no Hawaiian shirt to a crime scene. You gotta dress serious for serious business.

The Lady: Uh-huh. You look like Ronald McDracula.

The Genilman: Aw, don’t be that way. Besides, that name was already taken. When I’m at the club, I am the dread Baron Courvoisier. I make a face like this: behold my fearful visage!

The Lady: . . . You are one lugubrious looooser.

Learning long Latinate words like lugubrious is worth the effort both for their descriptive power and for their usefulness in restaurants. If you find yourself slightly short of funds for an adequate gratuity, you can proffer genuine 50-cent words of this kind to make up the balance, scribbing them on the check. I recently presented the following word list to a waiter, after an indescribable meal:

1 Caesar salad . . . saponaceous

1 Soup of the day . . . multifarious

1 Special roast . . . precambrian

1 Creme brulee . . . auto-da-fe

1 Espresso . . . rheological

This gift of knowledge will happily fulfill your moral obligations to your server, but it is advisable to resort to your vocabulary in this way only if you happen to be wearing shoes that you can run in. Do not linger over the coffee: you should allow your waiter the pleasure of a private moment upon discovering your matchless gratuity.