NR Digital

The Straggler

Words, Words, Words

by John Derbyshire


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.

Some history too: When Neville Chamberlain returned to London from Munich in September 1938, it was at Heston aerodrome that he stepped out of his plane to promise a cheering crowd that England and Germany would never go to war again. The twelve-year-old Bill Buckley — I tell you, he is hovering over this piece — happened to be passing at the time in his father’s car; they stopped to see what was going on. (In movie footage of the event we get glimpses of a boy’s head bobbing up behind Chamberlain’s security detail. The young Bill? No one seems to know.)

There were aerodromes all over England in the middle of the 20th century. The countryside around my home town boasted three or four aerodromes. There was also an aquadrome — a rather cheesy fun park arranged around some small lakes, in one of which, at age three, I very nearly drowned. In town there was a movie theater, not one of the better ones, named Picturedrome. What is this “-drome” business? Back to Webster’s. “-drome: [fr. Gk dromos; akin to Gk dramein to run] 1: racecourse; 2: large specially prepared place.” Got it.

But now I am off on a wild tangent. Drome, Dromes . . . the brand of cigarettes favored by Clare Quilty in Lolita, a Nabokovian wordplay on the Camel brand. (The illustration on the Camel pack is actually of a dromedary, “a camel of unusual speed” — Webster’s again.)

And palindrome: What does that have to do with running? “Gk palindromos, running back again” — Webster’s. Fair enough. Nothing to do with a recent governor of Alaska, anyway. Though for wordplay addicts — here I unmask myself — Palin palindromes are easily cooked up. “Media star harasses Sarah? ‘Rat!’ said Em.” Hmm, not really up there with the classics: “Madam, I’m Adam,” “So many dynamos!” etc. But then, as the Oxford Guide to Word Games tells us in its eight-page chapter on the subject: “As palindromes get longer, sense tends to get left behind.”

The Oxford Guide is one of the two indispensable books on wordplay, the other being the late Willard R. Espy’s Almanac of Words at Play. You want palindromes? Espy’s got ’em. “There are few rational palindromes of more than fifty or sixty letters,” he cautions. He then offers an 18-line palindromic poem. It begins, and of course also ends, with “Flee to me, remote elf.” Nor does Espy restrict himself to English. There is a whole list of Spanish palindromes: “Allí trota la tortilla,” for example. Google Translator (I know no Spanish) renders this as “Tortilla jogging there,” which I am sure can’t be right. Bill would have known.

Espy also has a passage on word-palindromes — easier to construct and more likely to make sense than letter-palindromes. Some almost rise to the level of proverbs: “Women understand men; few men understand women.” And then there are date palindromes, with which this year’s November is unusually blessed: 11/1/11, 11/2/11, and so on.

A wordplay column would not be complete without a word puzzle. Here’s one I’ve been carrying round in my head so long I have no idea where I first saw it.

A certain English noun and its precise French translation are directly descended from the same Latin noun. Both the English word and the French word have six letters; yet they have not a single letter in common. What is the English word?

(Answer: It’s the word for “the leader of a diocese.”)

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