Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Tag: vocabulary

Word Power: The Top 5

To top off my fortnight of word-related posts, I am channeling Rob Gordon and making a Top 5 list of my favorite words, either learned or relearned, from my recent trip through a small thesaurus. I love these words either for their sound, or simply for the fact that they exist.

5. niminy-piminy: Affectedly dainty or refined.

4. rejectamenta: Things thrown away or dismissed.
[I have got to incorporate this one into my repertoire. Though I suppose I should be careful, since it apparently has an excretory connotation — not that most people hearing it would know that!]

3. absquatulate: To leave in a hurry; depart.

2. hemidemisemiquaver: In music notation, a sixty-fourth note.
[Every time I think of this one, I feel like shouting it out a la Zippy The Pinhead: “Hemidemisemiquaver! Hemidemisemiquaver! Hemidemisemiquaver!”]

And of course, the Number One favorite word has to be:
1. sesquipedalian: Having many syllables; given to the use of long words.
[I have to love something that so perfectly and beautifully enacts what it describes.]

Oh, and as I mentioned in the comics post, honorable mention goes to “defenestrate.”

Words I Learned From Elsewhere

Welcome to the miscellany bin. This post holds all the words that I’ve learned from various places, ones whose categories couldn’t gather enough critical mass to merit a post of their own.

  • auto da fe: The ceremony accompanying the Spanish Inquisition’s execution of a heretic.
    [This one comes courtesy of Mel Brooks’ History Of The World, Part 1, in which there’s a rousing musical number about the Spanish Inquisition: “Auto da fe, what’s an auto da fe? / It’s what you oughtn’t ta do, but you do anyway!”]
  • ewer: A pitcher.
    [I owe my knowledge of this — and several other entries in this list — to crossword puzzles. If you get (basically) the same clue for a word from one puzzle to another for long enough, you learn it!]
  • indemnity: Compensation for a loss, e.g. the payout on a life insurance policy.
    [This one comes from a movie as well, in fact a movie title: Double Indemnity. In addition to being an absolutely great film, it’s a word teacher as well. Thanks, Billy Wilder!]
  • oleo: Margarine.
    [It’s another crossword puzzle special, a word for margarine that I have never heard or seen used outside of a crossword puzzle.]
  • olio: A mixture or collection; a hodge-podge.
    [Or, as it’s known in my mind, the crossword puzzle one that isn’t margarine.]
  • sword of Damocles: A constantly impending jeopardy. Based on a legendary Greek courtier who learned the joylessness of a ruler’s life when he was allowed all the king’s privileges but noticed a sword hanging over his head suspended by a single horsehair.
    [For whatever odd reason, two of my three movie vocabulary words come from songs sung in a movie. This one is from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which Rocky sings, “The sword of Damocles is hangin’ over my head / And I’ve got the feeling someone’s gonna be cuttin’ the thread!”]
  • tableau: A theatrical depiction of a still picture, performed by silent, motionless actors.
    [I learned this word from a stage play, The Fantasticks, which makes a big point of the fact that its first act ends in a tableau, and its second act begins with the same tableau.]
  • verbatim: Word for word.
    [It’s not often that I learn a new word from a computer component (although computer people are constantly repurposing words in ways that wrench them away from their original meanings.) However, in the 7th grade or so, I started noticing these 5 1/4″ floppy disks in envelopes that read “VERBATIM VERBATIM VERBATIM.” Some friendly teacher clued me into the fact that it was an actual word, not just a nonsense company name, and when I looked it up I decided that it was a pretty clever name for a magnetic media company.]
  • windfall: An unexpected gain or bonus.
    [I was quite the board game enthusiast growing up, so much so that I had a closetful of them, and even when I couldn’t find anybody to play with me, I’d set up a board anyway and run through a game with imaginary opponents. One of the games in that closet was Parker Brothers’ Pay Day, a money management game. One of the events that could happen in that game was a windfall, my first introduction to that all-too-infrequently-encountered term.]

Words I Learned From Television

I don’t tend to watch a lot of TV, but the shows I do watch, I tend to cover pretty thoroughly. There must be something in that habit that explains why almost all my TV vocabulary comes from two shows: M*A*S*H and The Simpsons. Turns out you can learn a fair amount from M*A*S*H and The Simpsons!

  • autoclave: A device for sterilizing surgical instruments with water pressurized to high above its boiling point.
    [The autoclave at the 4077th features into several episodes, most prominently in “Operation Friendship”, in which Klinger saves Winchester from an exploding one.]
  • fustigate: Beat or cudgel.
    [When Moe maneuvers Homer into a boxing career, he’s approached by Lucius Sweet (a thinly veiled Don King character), who asks him to have Homer fight Drederick Tatum (a thinly veiled Mike Tyson character.) Moe has misgivings: “Tatum’ll fustigate him!”]
  • mountebank: A quack or charlatan.
    [The greatest vocabulary-building Simpsons episode of all time has got to be “Bart’s Friend Falls In Love”, in which the B story is that Homer orders a subliminal weight-loss tape but instead ends up with a subliminal increase-your-word-power tape. (Marge: “Homer, has the weight loss tape reduced your appetite?” Homer: “Ah, lamentably no. My gastronomic rapacity knows no satiety.”) When he discovers that he’s actually been gaining weight, he has a fit of pique: “Those disingenuous mountebanks with their subliminal chicanery! A pox on them!” Surprisingly, there were no combo scores in this episode — for some reason I happened to know all the other words they used.]
  • potable: Drinkable liquid.
    [Okay, there’s one more show that made it to this list: Jeopardy! Vocabulary is the least of what Jeopardy! has to teach, but it definitely taught me this one, due to its frequently-featured category “Potent Potables,” all about drinks.]
  • scapula: Shoulder blade.
    [Sometimes, for reasons I can’t explain, a little moment will stick in my head. So it was when Hawkeye, in the midst of surgery, asked a nurse to scratch his back, “just under the left infra-scapula.” Maybe it stuck in there because I’d never heard the word before?]
  • slugabed: Lazy person; layabout.
    [“Look at them, Smithers. Goldbrickers, layabouts, slugabeds! Little do they realize that their days of suckling at my teat are numbered!” Thus speaks Mr. Burns in “Treehouse Of Horror II.” Incidentally, I’m certain I first heard goldbrick on M*A*S*H, from Margaret or Frank in reference to Klinger.]
  • tontine: A group agreement concerning shared property, in which the final surviving member of the group inherits the property.
    [This word has the sparkling distinction of appearing in both M*A*S*H and The Simpsons. It showed up in M*A*S*H first, the episode “Old Soldiers”, wherein Col. Potter learns that he is the final surviving member of a tontine and inherits the bottle of brandy they’d all found together during WWI. On The Simpsons, it was Grandpa Simpson who was in the tontine with Mr. Burns, as they were allegedly in the same squadron in WWII. They fought over the booty, a cache of paintings from a German castle, in “The Curse Of The Flying Hellfish.”]
  • tracheotomy: A surgical procedure in which a hole is opened in the trachea to allow the patient to breathe, when the windpipe is blocked higher up.
    [This one was burned onto my brain by the outstanding episode “Mulcahy’s War”, in which Father Mulcahy performs an emergency field tracheotomy with instructions radioed from Hawkeye. We get to hear the steps of the operation in explicit detail, as he uses Radar’s Tom Mix pocketknife to make the incision, and the shell of a fountain pen as a breathing tube. It’s rather IF-like, really. Then, in a later episode (“Point Of View”), we saw the 4077th through the eyes of a soldier who’d undergone a tracheotomy and couldn’t talk.]

And finally, one of my favorite COMBO SCOREs of all time is spoken by one of my favorite Simpsons characters:

  • arglebargle or foofaraw: Argument or disturbance over nothing
    [In “Last Exit To Springfield”, in which Homer leads a power plant strike, newsman Kent Brockman asks: “Tonight, on Smartline, the power plant strike: arglebargle, or foofaraw?”]

Words I Learned From Role-Playing Games

I went through a long period of loving Dungeons And Dragons and other such RPGs, though I could never quite find the ideal like-minded, theatrical, story-and-character-loving group of peers for it, or so I imagined anyway. Maybe every group stays permanently out of character and treats the whole thing as a gold-grubbing exercise. (Darths And Droids is somewhat persuasive on this point.) Thank you, single-player CRPGs!

Anyway, I kept hearing that these games were going to make me lose the boundary between fantasy and reality, and send me wandering through underground steam tunnels, but instead I just learned some awesome new words.

  • basilisk: A mythical lizard whose gaze can turn people to stone or kill them. Also sometimes known as a cockatrice.
    [Ahhh, the Monster Manual. This was a guide to many of the creatures a D&D character might encounter, complete with their various stats and special abilities. Because the game borrowed liberally from various literary and mythological traditions, it introduced me to many fabulous beasties from those traditions, including this one.]
  • cant: A secret language.
    [If you chose to play a thief in D&D, you could learn “Thieves’ Cant”, a secret method of communication that would let you talk to other thieves without being understood by anyone else. The concept is based in historical fact, and its RPG equivalent has been rather exhaustively catalogued.]
  • chutzpah: Unshakable self-confidence; audacity.
    [In the RPG Toon, chutzpah was one of the character stats. Characters with a high chutzpah score could pull off ridiculous schemes and convince others to believe patently false things. Bugs Bunny would have a maxed-out chutzpah stat.]
  • dexterity: Physical skill and grace.
    [Speaking of character stats, this is one from the original D&D rules — characters with a high dexterity could dodge attacks better, and perform difficult feats such as pickpocketing. It’s a “common knowledge” word my world now, but it wasn’t when I was in 5th grade.]
  • flail: A medieval weapon consisting of one or more weights swinging freely from a handle via chains.
    [Just as the Monster Manual taught me about all manner of creatures, the Player’s Handbook introduced me to a dizzying variety of weapons and armor. It would be overwhelming to try to include them all here, so I’m just choosing this one as a representative sample. Others include glaive, greaves, halberd, scimitar, shillelagh, and voulge.]
  • garrote: A strangling weapon consisting of two handles with a wire, chain, or rope between them.
    [Different genres had their different weapons. Thus, while D&D was teaching me about medieval arsenals, I learned about this nasty piece of work from the espionage game Top Secret.]
  • gelatinous: Dense; viscous.
    [One of the wackier monsters in the Monster Manual was the Gelatinous Cube, which is just exactly what it sounds like — a huge cube of goo which would eat anything organic and spit out anything inorganic.]
  • golem: An animated creature created from inanimate material such as stone, wood, or metal.
    [This was not only another monster, but also something that magic-user characters could create, given sufficient skill. Its real-world origin is in Jewish folklore.]
  • lycanthropy: The condition of being a werewolf, or some other kind of were-creature.
    [Oh, there are so many crazy things that can befall a hapless D&D character, and this is one of them. If you get bitten by a werewolf (or were-rat, or were-bear, or were-whatever), you become lycanthropic yourself. (Unless, of course, you can avail yourself of a Cure Disease spell cast by a 12th-level or higher character, or you eat some belladonna within an hour, which has a 25% chance of curing the condition but will incapacitate you for 1d4 days and has a 1% chance of killing you. If you love yourself some intricate sets of rules with lots of randomness involved, D&D is the game for you.)]
  • myrmidon: A loyal warrior, based on legends of Achilles’ armies against Troy.
    [Another fun feature of the Player’s Handbook was all the tables of information it contained. Among these were the level tables for each character class, in which each level was given its own title. Thus, “myrmidon” was a level 6 fighter.]
  • paladin: A noble warrior; paragon of chivalry; heroic champion.
    [In Advanced D&D, the Paladin was a specialized sort of fighter, which obtained some special abilities due to its unwavering devotion to the cause of law and justice.]
  • précis: A summary presentation of information.
    [This is another one from Top Secret, in which mission dossiers often included a précis about, for instance, suspected criminal masterminds.]
  • prestidigitator: One who performs magic tricks involving sleight of hand or other manual feats.
    [This one comes from the Player’s Handbook table of magic-user levels — a level 1 magic-user is a prestidigitator. There’s one more of these coming up below.]
  • succubus: A demon who takes the form of a beautiful woman in order to seduce and consume its victim.
    [It’s another evil beastie from the Monster Manual, this time particularly memorable because, well, let’s face it, it was a rather compelling concept (and illustration!) for a young boy.]
  • thaumaturge: A practitioner of magic.
    [The magic-user table actually lists a level 5 character as a “Thaumaturgist,” but for some reason, this was the formulation that stuck in my mind. Other noteworthy words from these tables are acolyte, chevalier, curate, druid, filcher, justiciar, magsman, and theurgist.]
  • will-o’-the-wisp: A ghostly, flickering light, which leads the curious into peril.
    [One final entity from the Monster Manual, similar to the gelatinous cube in its lack of animal characteristics. I always found this a captivating idea. Other outre words from the creature compendium: bugbear, doppleganger, harpy, hippogriff, homonculous, kobold, manticore, roc, wight, and wyvern.]

Words I Learned From Rock and Roll

Despite what Allan Bloom would have us believe, rock music can be a source of learning. Behold the many and variegated words (and phrases) I’ve learned from paying attention to popular music over the years.

  • abraxas: A mystical word engraved on ancient amulets and charms, signifying deity.
    [This was the name of Santana’s second album, which includes the Fleetwood Mac cover “Black Magic Woman.”]
  • bête noire: A person or concept that is anathema; the bane of one’s existence.
    [Bryan Ferry’s seventh album, which includes the song “Kiss And Tell.”]
  • bon vivant: Enjoying the best things in life.
    [From Paul Simon’s “American Tune”: “Still, you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant / So far away from home.”]
  • cult of personality: A heroic public image created around the leader of a movement or country, often via mass media.
    [Living Colour introduced me to this concept with their first single from the album Vivid.]
  • desperado: A desperate, dangerous outlaw.
    [From the Eagles song of the same name. It started playing on the radio when I was 3, and basically never stopped, so it was without a doubt my first exposure to this word.]
  • eponymous: Self-titled (e.g. Tracy Chapman by Tracy Chapman is an eponymous album.)
    [R.E.M., in their typically droll way, named their 1988 greatest hits collection Eponymous. It’s also a favorite word of rock critics.]
  • eurythmic: Harmonious.
    [I learned this word thanks to Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox naming their band Eurythimcs.]
  • jitney: (1) A small bus. (2) An unlicensed taxi.
    [From Northern State’s “Things I’ll Do”: “Plan you a trip, get you there in a jitney / Write you a song, get you soundin’ like Britney.”]
  • maharishi: Spiritual teacher.
    [I didn’t learn this one from any song or album, but rather from reading up on The Beatles, and the time they spent with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.]
  • mahout: A person who keeps and/or drives an elephant.
    [From Joan Armatrading’s “Drop The Pilot”: “Drop the mahout, I’m the easy rider / Don’t use your army to fight a losing battle.”]
  • mistral: A strong, cold, often violent wind that occurs around France and Italy.
    [Heart has a song I love called “Mistral Wind”, which uses the mistral as a metaphor for joyfully losing control.]
  • rostrum: A stage or a raised platform for performing.
    [From The Who’s “Sally Simpson”: “But soon the atmosphere was cooler as Tommy gave a lesson / Sally just had to let him know she loved him, and leapt up on the rostrum!”]
  • rubicon: A point of no return.
    [Journey taught me this one with the song “Rubicon” on their Frontiers album.]
  • slàinte mhath: A Scots Gaelic toast, literally meaning “good health.”
    [Marillion entitled a song “Slàinte Mhath” on their brilliant Clutching At Straws album.]
  • son et lumière: A sound and light show.
    [From Joe Jackson’s “Glamour And Pain”: “I’m hanging in the air / I look in your window at my own lipstick reflection there / And behind it such a precious son et lumière / Of all the normal stuff, about which I’m supposed to care / I’d like to smash right through / And help myself to your silverware.”]
  • synchronicity: Meaningful coincidence
    [Carl Jung fully articulated this concept in 1952, and Sting seized upon it in 1983, releasing the Police album Synchronicity and naming two songs after the concept: “Synchronicity I” and “Synchronicity II.”]
  • terrazzo: A multicolored floor of marble or stone chips.
    [From Don Henley’s “Drivin’ With Your Eyes Closed”: “So before The Death of Lovers and The Punishment of Pride / Let’s go scrape across the terrazzo / It’s just too hot outside.”]
  • tinnitus: A severe ringing in the ears.
    [This is another one I didn’t learn from a song or album, but rather from paying attention to the music world. Pete Townshend stopped playing electric guitar for a good long time because he suffers from tinnitus.]

I do have a couple of COMBO SCORES to award as well:

  • desultory philippic: A rambling, somewhat disappointing tirade
    [Simon and Garfunkel put “A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” on their Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme album and sent me to the dictionary twice!]
  • scaramouche, scaramouche, can you do the fandango?: Clown from commedia dell’arte, can you perform a Portuguese folk dance?
    [Unlike many rock songs, which string meaningless lyrics together out of nonsense words, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” strings meaningless lyrics together out of actual words.]

Words I Learned From Comics

Today’s installment focuses on some of the vocabulary I’ve gained from my lifelong enthusiasm for comics. I’ve been a Marvel comics reader since I was six years old, as well as an aficionado of newspaper strips, Mad magazine (in my tweens/teens, anyway), graphic novels, and these days, webcomics.

  • corsair: A pirate.
    [The X-Man Cyclops was originally written as an orphan, but in the 70s, Chris Claremont decided to reintroduce Cyclops’s father as Corsair, the leader of a band of space pirates. Space pirates! Cosmic freebooters! (I may have learned freebooter from this source as well.)]
  • defenestrate: To throw something or someone out of a window.
    [Early in Peter David’s hilarious and satisfying run on X-Factor (issue #71 to be exact), the musclebound mutant known as Strong Guy says this: “I’m watcha call ‘sensitive.’ ‘Course, some blork got a problem with that… then I’ll defenestrate him.” When I looked this up, I was delighted to discover that English has a special word just for throwing somebody out a window. What a great language.]
  • effendi: A Middle Eastern term for a respected man.
    [Stan Lee has an abiding love for unusual, colorful words. When he developed the editorial personality of Marvel, he was known to run wild with the alliteration, producing news column headings along the lines of “A Cacophonous Collection Of Captivating Capsule Comments Calculated To Corral Your Consciousness!” He also instilled certain linguistic tics, one of which was the frequent use of “effendi”, as in, “Don’t worry, effendi, we’ll catch you up on the plot as we go!”]
  • excelsior: Ever upward.
    [And then there’s the most iconic Lee-ism of all. Stan used to write a column in the comics called “Stan’s Soapbox,” in which he expounded about whatever was on his mind or, more often, whatever new product the company was about to offer. He ended each column with an enthusiastic “Excelsior!” (I had to consciously work not to put exclamation points on the word and definition above.) Apparently, this is also the Latin motto of New York state.]
  • hoary: Extremely old.
    [Another place where Lee’s logophilia was allowed to run wild was in the arcane incantations of Dr. Strange. There were plenty of words to learn from these, so I chose one arbitrarily, from the frequently-invoked “Hoary Hosts Of Hoggoth.”]
  • invincible: Impossible to defeat.
    [To punch up his titles, Stan would throw an adjective before the hero’s name on the cover: “The Amazing Spider-Man” or “The Mighty Thor”. In the case of “The Incredible Hulk,” the adjective has practically become part of the character’s name. With “The Invincible Iron Man,” the adjective was new to my 7-year-old self. There’s another one of those coming later.]
  • katzenjammer: Loud, chaotic noise.
    [It wasn’t just Marvel comics that taught me new words. My interest in them led me to scour the library for whatever I could find about comics history, and in the process I ran across The Katzenjammer Kids, a comic strip from the early 20th century. I figured out later that Katzenjammer was not only the name of the strip’s central characters, it was a descriptor of them as well.]
  • martinet: A strict, pitiless disciplinarian.
    [I was a huge fan of Chris Claremont’s New Mutants series in the early 80s, and read those issues over and over. That must be why whole phrases from them still stick in my mind, 25 years after my first reading. For instance, in New Mutants #7, when the team thinks one of its teammates has died in an explosion, Professor X sends them on vacation rather than having them search for her. A couple of X-Men question his decision, and he explains that the entity who caused the explosion is too dangerous for the young team: “For the moment, it is best they think Shan dead — and me a heartless martinet. They may hate me, but at least they’ll be alive.”]
  • mutant: An organism whose genetic makeup is unique due to a spontaneous change in DNA.
    [The word “mutant” itself was new to me when I first started reading about the X-Men in Son Of Origins Of Marvel Comics. According to Lee, he wanted to call the book The Mutants, but was shot down by his publisher Martin Goodman, who insisted that younger readers (what Lee calls “the bubble-gum brigade”) wouldn’t understand the word and would avoid the book. Given that I was a member of that very brigade at the time I was reading, I’m pretty sure Goodman was wrong.]
  • picayune: Trivial; petty.
    [Here’s another one from a newspaper strip, this time Bloom County, whose in-universe newspaper was the Bloom Picayune. One of the strip’s paperback collections even included a sample copy.]
  • prehensile: Able to grasp or hold things.
    [Lee isn’t the only one with tics. Chris Claremont would use the same phrases over and over, such as calling the X-Men “occasionally outlaw superheroes.” One of his favorites was to constantly remind us that Nightcrawler‘s tail is prehensile, allowing him to grab things with it.]
  • ragnarok: The apocalypse, or “Doom of the gods”, in Norse mythology, in which deities clash and destroy the universe.
    [Stan explicitly embraced mythology, going so far as to make a superhero out of Thor, the Norse god of thunder. (That Thor spoke mainly in Elizabethan English is a mystery I will not attempt to unravel here.) In adopting Thor, he brought in not only a huge supporting cast from the Norse myths, but many of their plot points as well. Thor and his fellow gods have been through many a Marvel ragnarok over the last 40 years.]
  • rapport: Sympathetic connection between people, marked by the sharing of perspectives.
    [Claremont liked to lean on this word to describe close relationships with one or more telepaths involved, whether it be Cyclops and Jean Grey or Dani Moonstar and Rahne Sinclair.]
  • revanche: Revenge; retaliation.
    [During the 1990s, X-Men continuity got so baffling that I pretty much disengaged from most of it. At some point during that period, Fabian Nicieza created a character called Revanche, whose most interesting quality was her vocabulary-enriching name.]
  • sobriquet: A descriptive nickname.
    [This one was another Lee-ism, as in, “He calls himself Mr. Fantastic, a swingin’ sobriquet if there ever was one!”]
  • tatterdemalion: A person wearing ragged, tattered clothing.
    [A minor supervillain in the Marvel Universe, Tatterdemalion lived up to his name with a ragged, tattered costume.]
  • telepathy: The ability to read minds and/or project one’s thoughts.
    [Keep in mind, I was quite young when I started reading comics. It was my first encounter with the idea of psychic powers — when Charles Xavier was described as “telepathic,” I had to look it up. Along this line, I also learned telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and other such words for mentally derived superpowers.]
  • uncanny: Eerie, unsettling, bizarre; seemingly supernatural in origin.
    [Like “The Invincible Iron Man”, “The Uncanny X-Men” introduced me to a brand new and very spiffy adjective.]
  • whimsy: Fanciful, illogical, quaint.
    [My memory of this one is fuzzy — it was in some humor magazine, probably a Mad knockoff like Cracked or Crazy. In its table of contents, it contained an expressive row of faces demonstrating various moods of humor, such as satire, drollery, and whimsy. I don’t remember anything else about the magazine, but I do remember that captivating word.]

Sometimes you get not just one brand new word but a whole string of them thrown at you. For those, I am awarding a COMBO SCORE, and I am pleased to give the first one to Avengers #93:

  • Poltroon! Craven recreant!: Coward! Cowardly coward!
    [See, the Super-Skrull is fighting the Vision, and the Vision decides to flee rather than continue the fight. Because the Vision can pass through walls, the Super-Skrull can’t give chase, and so he shouts this in frustration at the fleeing android. It’s the kind of moment that makes me love those early Marvels.]

Also, I should give extra credit to Chris Claremont for teaching me a variety of foreign words. One of Claremont’s enduring mannerisms was to make sure we were constantly reminded of each character’s nationality by either transliterating that character’s speech (e.g. “I dinna ken what ye mean, Dani!”) or peppering it with foreign phrases, or, most often, both. Consequently, Japanese characters were always hissing that Wolverine was “gaijin” (foreigner), Colossus was constantly exclaiming “boizhe moi!” (my God!) and so on.

Words I Learned From Infocom, Deluxe Edition

As revealed in the comments section of my original Words Infocom Taught Me post, we learn words from lots of unexpected places. Reading Eugene Ehrlich’s Highly Selective Thesaurus has reminded me of many of them. Now that I’ve finished the book, I’ve decided to write a short series of blog posts, detailing words I’ve learned from various geeky sources. First in line is a fuller list of words from Infocom games, this time complete with definitions and comments explaining the context of each word, for those who don’t know the Infocom canon by heart:

  • analgesic: A medicine to reduce pain.
    [The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I can’t quite believe I forgot this one the first time around. You start the game with a “buffered analgesic” in your inventory — in other words, an aspirin. A trip to the dictionary makes the headache puzzle much easier to solve.]
  • burin: A chisel with a sharp point, used for engraving.
    [Spellbreaker. “Featureless white cubes” are the centerpiece objects of this game, and you need to use your magic burin to engrave them with names, so that they can be distinguished from each other.]
  • cyclopean: Massive, enormous.
    [Spellbreaker again. A memorable room is described as littered with “cyclopean blocks of stone.” I took this to mean “huge rocks”, but I see on looking up the word that it also describes a style of masonry in which large irregular blocks of stone are fitted together to create a structure.]
  • EBCDIC: A binary encoding for text used at IBM, infamous for its incomprehensibility.
    [Zork I and Zork II. The Maintenance Room in Zork I contains this sentence: On the wall in front of you is a group of buttons, which are labeled in EBCDIC. In other words, labeled in such a way as to make their labels totally useless. Again in Zork II: Along one wall of the room are three buttons which are, respectively, round, triangular, and square. Naturally, above the buttons are instructions written in EBCDIC.]
  • footpad: A thief.
    [Zork II. A Frobozz Magic Alarm Company alarm has a sign on the wall reading “Hello, Footpad!”, just before it drops a big cage on you.]
  • gazebo: A freestanding pavilion with an open structure, often found in parks or gardens.
    [Zork II features one of these inside a garden room. It even contains a lovely china teapot, and a unicorn grazes nearby.]
  • gnomon: The part of a sundial that casts a shadow.
    [Trinity. The sundial is a central metaphor in Trinity, and a gnomon is a key component to at least one major puzzle. The game even came with a sundial feelie, complete with gnomon.]
  • infidel: An unbeliever, one who rejects the tenets of a faith.
    [Infidel, of course. The title character of the game is one of the first, perhaps the first, unsympathetic player characters in IF. He is an archaeologist who treats his Egyptian assistants with contempt, leading them to drug his drink and leave him to die in the desert.]
  • menhir: A large, upright standing stone.
    [Zork II again. A room description:
    Menhir Room
    This is a large room which was evidently used once as a quarry. Many large limestone chunks lie helter-skelter around the room. Some are rough-hewn and unworked, others smooth and well-finished. One side of the room appears to have been used to quarry building blocks, the other to produce menhirs (standing stones). Obvious passages lead north and south.One particularly large menhir, at least twenty feet tall and eight feet thick, is leaning against the wall blocking a dark opening leading southwest. On this side of the menhir is carved an ornate letter "F".
  • oubliette: A dungeon whose only door is a hatch in the ceiling, too high to reach.
    [Spellbreaker has an oubliette room — escaping from it is one of the game’s puzzles.]
  • reliquary: A container for sacred relics.
    [This is a treasure container in Beyond Zork, owned by the redoubtable “Cardinal Toolbox.”]
  • reticule: A small handbag held closed with a drawstring, which can be worn around one’s wrist.
    [Plundered Hearts was Infocom’s only game in the romance genre, and its 17th-century heroine carried a reticule around her wrist, an elegant in-character solution to inventory management issues. It even contained one as a feelie. (By the way, I just fired up the game to make sure I knew what I was talking about, and noticed that its very first sentence contains the word “arquebus“, an early firearm!)]
  • skink: A type of lizard.
    [One of Trinity‘s most brilliant puzzles involved the inevitable death of a skink.]
  • topiary: Hedges trimmed to particular shapes.
    [Zork II yet again. Just a few rooms south of that gazebo is this:
    This is the southern end of a formal garden. Hedges hide the cavern walls and mosses provide dim illumination. Fantastically shaped hedges and bushes are arrayed with geometric precision. They have not recently been clipped, but you can discern creatures in the shapes of the bushes: There is a dragon, a unicorn, a great serpent, a huge misshapen dog, and several human figures. On the west side of the garden the path leads through a rose arbor into a tunnel.

    Creepily, the animals sometimes move around when you’re not looking.]
  • sarcophagus: A stone coffin.
    [Both Zork I and Infidel contained one of these as a treasure receptacle.]
  • verbose: Given to excessive wordiness.
    [Of course! Every Infocom game offered a VERBOSE command, which would prompt the game to always print room descriptions. I myself switched into VERBOSE mode long ago.]

It looks like Zork II wins the Infocom top vocabulary builder award!

Words Infocom taught me

One of Textfyre‘s marketing claims is going to be that interactive fiction teaches literacy: vocabulary, reading comprehension, that sort of thing. (It also teaches typing — I have long claimed that Infocom taught me how to touch-type, because I was too absorbed in the game to look down at the keyboard.)

The vocabulary claim is certainly true for me. I always suspected that Infocom had a hidden agenda to broaden our vocabularies, because there were always a few words in their games that sent me to the dictionary. When I wrote my first game, I tried to inject a little tribute to this tradition, with a peninsular location I called “Chersonese.” I was reminded of this recently as I thumbed through a thesaurus given to me as a gift.

In that spirit, I present an incomplete list of the words I learned from Infocom games:

gnomon (Trinity)
menhir (Zork II)
oubliette (Spellbreaker)
reliquary (Beyond Zork)
reticule (Plundered Hearts)
skink (Trinity)
topiary (Zork II)

These are just the ones that turned up in a cursory search of my brain. Anybody else got others?

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