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John Harvard's Journal | The Undergraduate

Word‑upmanship

May-June 2014


Illustration by Brucie Rosch

Lexiphane, n. |lɛkˈsɪfən| – Last week, I overheard one editor at the Crimson accuse another of being a lexiphane. The accused, quick to his wit, replied that to indict someone for lexiphanicism is the surest way to confirm one’s hypocrisy. Meanwhile, I surreptitiously tapped the OED app on my iPhone to find out what all of this meant. Lexiphane: someone who fashions ostentatious exhibition of an eclectic vernacular via uttered or indited discernments declaimed sempre sans prudent jocosity, fatuous futility, sagacious garrulity, and sesquipedalian rodomontade to ingratiate some semblance of highfalutincy that resonates more as pleonastic philosophunculism than connatural erudition. Lexiphane, I read: “someone who shows off by using big words.”

But I already had words to describe this kind of person: prolix/digressive/loquacious/circuitous/periphrastic/circumlocutory. Actually, b.s.er is probably the best synonym—it’s a moniker just about any Harvard student will admit to affiliate with. Masses of Latinate and French words sift upon our facts when we speak, like parmesan on a pizza slice, obfuscating the topic, draping the details. Embedded in the language of the classroom are all the anxieties and social pressure we place upon ourselves as students. We tell ourselves that if we sound smarter, schmooze smarter, then we are smarter. When we do not know what to say in section, on an exam, in a paper, but feel compelled to say something anyway, we turn instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms. The problem, I’d speculate, is endemic to academia, to our professors whose job, an alien observer must think, is simply to invent new words for things we’ve already named. Indeed, to invent a phrase or coin some disciplinic terminology (I’m coining “disciplinic,” by the way) is almost as much a rite of passage for scholars as is tenure. Very little art or effort is involved in this lexical invention, which, more often than not, simply entails the suffixation of an -ism, -ic, -ent, -ium, or -ation, or a combination thereof, to an old word (e.g., boredismization).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a lengthy or redundant word. No, the issue isn’t the word, but rather it’s how it’s used. Once, in a seminar on Cold War art, a seemingly sheepish-looking student piped up about a recently screened film: “Though the demidocumentary’s utilization of unruly display—parenthetical: cannons, fireworks, et cetera—is viscerally sensational, it fails, subjectively speaking, to arouse the amygdala.” It was an Oscar-worthy performance, like watching Leo DiCaprio freeze to death in a kiddie pool. Of course, what he meant was that he thought the pyrotechnics were cool but didn’t really add much to the drama.

Harvard is a place where excess language fills the void of ignorance. Walk into just about any section meeting and I guarantee you’ll hear at least one of the following: ne plus ultra, problematize, preternatural, diaspora, hagiography, antipodal. We all do it (myself included, obviously). Just as we slip into suit and tie for our interviews, we dress up our language, too. It’s expected: you may wear what you like linguistically in your dorm room or with friends, but it’s only considerate, in academic settings, to smarten up your language: to be a lexiphane.

We waste words here; we toss around sesquipedalian, animadversion, and pulchritudinous. When used for aural appeal, pun, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, or intended excess the use is justified. But more often than not, none of these apply. I’ve heard students use tendentious for biased, or lacuna for gap. Worse yet, I’ve had classmates who think catch-alls like Foucauldian and globalization are always applicable and sometimes interchangeable. It’s pomp, dressing, self-flattery. Not an effort to be obscure, but one to be unclear.

When I began college, I aimed to add a new word to my vocabulary every day. It took at least a year before I realized that most of the words I was adding were simply clutter. I decided I would instead attempt to eliminate one word from my vocabulary every day. Not vital words, mind you, not those without synonym (ersatz) or those of particular association (ligan)—a favorite professor once said to me, “If you lose something’s word, you forget that at one time it was important enough to have a word associated with it”—but rather those that signify nothing other than intoned pretention. What follows are five more useless words I learned at Harvard, words I have tried—but failed miserably—to forget.

Ivoriate, v. |ˈaɪvərɪˈeɪt| – Why was I shopping a Bronze Age archaeology seminar my first semester at Harvard? I don’t really remember. I had probably just followed an older, attractive female grad student through the Peabody…. Anyway, there I was, learning about my Greco-Roman blind spots from an anthropology professor, as the oldest teaching fellow I’d ever seen clicked through a manual slide show of various clay containers set against white backdrops. Pots, pots, pots slid across the slides. Disinterested and disengaged, I waited for the first hour to be over before trying to leave. That’s one of those unspoken rules for shopping seminars in shopping week. I knew it. My peers knew it. The septuagenarian with clicker knew it. And yet, as I stood up, the professor, breaking custom, turned to me, grimaced, and said, “The xoana are up next.” I wasn’t sure what to do so I stood by the door as the TF clicked to another slide, revealing a gold-plated plank set atop a pedestal. “A xoanon,” the professor continued, “was an early idol of a god—planks to begin with, but as men became more prideful, they metallicized and ivoriated them....” Ivoriate? I thought to myself. Does he mean “to cover in ivory”? Sure enough, the next slide was an ivory-plated statue. Well okay then. I had had enough. The professor ended by talking about anthropomorphism, about an epoch of primitivity wrecked by vainglory and superciliousness. After an hour, my legs sore, I left.

Desideratum, n. |dɪˌsɪdəˈreɪtəm| – “Let’s look at your desiderata,” said the interviewer as I hunched in a chair. “We’re looking for a candidate with integrity and a good knowledge of HTML.” I thought, for a moment, about how best to respond. “But in fact,” he went on, “HTML is vital.”

Overwrought, adj. |ˈoʊvə(r)ˈrɔt| – One of the very first short stories I ever wrote was about a boy on the bank of a lake who laments his lost youth and then gets into a fight with a prehistoric fish. I took the story to my fiction-writing class, where a fellow student began our discussion of it by saying, “It’s lovely writing, but the concept is a bit overwrought.” Her well-meant intent was to soften the curse of calling it clichéd. The problem was that overwrought became the signifier of cliché in any of our work thereafter. “The dream component is rather overwrought,” someone would say. “Are you overwrought to be ironic?” another would ask. I love my classmates for their sensitivity and encouragement, but I hate overwrought.

Anagnorisis, n. |ænəɡˈnɒrɪsɪs| – I have a friend who tells me she’s been waiting for anagnorisis. She tells me that’s what she originally thought college was for—as Aristotle defined it in Poetics: “A change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune.” She tells me now that she’s not so sure that’s what she means, but that she’ll use the word anyway because she hasn’t found one closer to what she does mean. “I’m waiting for something like anagnorisis,” she says. “That undiscoverable moment of discovery, I guess.” When she first told me this, we were sipping coffee in the Lowell House courtyard, which we’ve been doing recently at the end of especially stressful days. “What are you waiting for?” she asked. I had thought about it, of course, and so I told her quite candidly: “For me, it’s kind of like opening a closed door. It’s got nothing to do with what’s behind a door, it’s just the opening of a door itself, the motion.” I told her it was like that moment right before you eat really warm pie, or when you let up on your brakes when riding your bike down a hill.

“It’s the moment right before the door opens,” I said.

“That’s it,” she said. “That’s what I mean by anagnorisis!

Acropodium, n. |ˈækroʊˈpoʊdiəm| – There is a man down Brattle Street who pretends to be a statue. I’ve seen him when I go running. He dresses up like a Revolutionary War soldier, paints himself silver, stands stock still on top of a rectangular box, watches admirers gather around, and hopes they throw a few coins into his cup. Recently I’ve started to wonder what would happen if, seeking even more coins and more admirers, he practices standing still longer and longer until one day he stands perfectly still—and no one notices him.

The worry hangs about me most days like flies on a horse, but especially so now, thinking as I have been about those xoana I heard about in that archaeology class. As I read later, they were simple wooden idols that the Greeks gradually began to re-sculpt into humanoid forms until the beautiful wood structures underneath were all but forgotten. To be plank-like isn’t enough, it turns out. Simplicity is demanded, but immediately forgotten. A xoanon can no longer be a plank; the statue man can no longer be still. Our language mustn’t be ours.

In the first draft of this column, I included the statue man under ivoriate. I showed that draft to my roommate. “Don’t say rectangular box,” he said. “Say acropodium.”

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