National Review / Digital
Words, Words, Words



The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace.

Thus the founder of this magazine, writing in these pages, issue dated Nov. 19, 1955. Bill Buckley was famously a man of many, many words. He had, I mean, more words at his disposal — there in his head, ready to use — than most of us have. That “supererogation” is characteristic. Bill used the verb “supererogate” and its derivatives elsewhere, too: I can remember encountering it, and having to look it up, soon after I began reading National Review in the mid-1970s. (“Supererogation: the act or process or an instance of performing more than is required by duty or obligation” — Webster’s Third.)

Alas for sesquipedalian erudition! A news item in the London Daily Mail tells me that the compilers of Collins pocket dictionaries have dropped the word “supererogate” on the grounds that it has enjoyed “not much use since the 1900s” (the decade, not the century). Apparently these wardens of the word-hoard, these validators of the vocabulary, conduct periodic culls of words that have lapsed into desuetude (the spirit of Buckley is strong upon me!) in order to make room for neologisms like “textrovert” and “blamestorm.” For the purpose of British pocket dictionaries, at least — though how much longer will they be around, in the age of the iPhone? — “supererogate” is supernumerary and superfluous. Any future occurrences of it you may spot will be supervenient.

Several other words are being culled by the Collins editors. Most of them are unknown to me, so I shed no tears for them. I did pause for a moment over “wittol,” which looks handy: “a man who tolerates his wife’s unfaithfulness.” The Mail tells us it has seen “not much use since 1940s.” Why not? Did our wives stop being unfaithful after World War II, or did we stop tolerating their delinquencies? “Charabanc” I agree I haven’t heard spoken in decades, and even then the usage was I think facetious. It conjures up images of cheerful pre-war Cockneys off for a day at the seaside in a hired “motor coach, esp. one used for sightseeing tours.” London’s East End has long since been colonized by Bangladeshis; the Cockneys decamped to the far suburbs, and now take their seaside pleasures in Tenerife or Thailand.

“Aerodrome” I knew, and would rescue from the cull if I could. “Not much use since 1960s,” explains the Daily Mail. I suppose not, “airfield” having taken over the meaning (and I think having always been the preferred word on this side of the Atlantic). I’m sorry to see “aerodrome” go, though. It has a nice period sound to it, bringing to mind the times, now beginning to slip off the far edge of living memory, when air travel was an adventure, not a chore.

October 31, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 20

  • Bobby Jindal is leading Louisiana’s revival.
  • Celebrating a remarkable Supreme Court tenure.
Books, Arts & Manners
  • Tracy Lee Simmons reviews James Madison, by Richard Brookhiser.
  • William Tucker reviews The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin.
  • Michael Novak reviews The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan, by Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C.
  • Eli Lehrer reviews The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, by William J. Stuntz.
  • Ross Douthat reviews The Ides of March.
  • John Derbyshire laments the passing of ‘supererogate’ — and more.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
The Bent Pin  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .