Tuesday, December 29, 2015


When I was a kid in summer camp, I had a friend who would do his summer reading on the bus. Since we were kids and didn't yet know all the words (spoiler: we still don't), he kept a dictionary with him, and would look things up as needed.

Flash forward to now, and like my camp friend, I occasionally find an unfamiliar word while reading on the subway. Carrying a dictionary with me is preposterous, and Google can't always hear my requests from deep underground, so I've started keeping a list of words to look up later. Here are the new words I learned from reading Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.

rakehell: A person of questionable morals (to put it blandly), used in the book to describe the protagonist.
parvenu: Essentially "new money," derogatory, again describing the main character but in the eyes of an aristocratic woman.
treed: This one was easy to figure out from context but I loved it so much I wrote it down. In this context it means trapped in a high place, such as up a tree. In the book, someone speculates being "treed on the fountain," and I thought this was a very colorful way of describing that.
quondam: Former, although in the book it seems to mean "absent" or "intermittent," as it describes a man who blinks in and out of existence, in contrast with his very solid and permanent house.
glancing: Brief and indirect, referring to a question asked by a character who wasn't entirely interested in hearing the answer.
desiderata: Things desired. "Healthy, charming wise children were the desiderata."
phlegmatic: Not prone to action or emotion. This word has been knocking around in my brain for many years and I'm glad to finally have the excuse to look it up. It is used to describe mountains in contrast with people.
peyotl: This appears to just be an alternate or foreign spelling of peyote. He seemed to be using it as an adjectival form of peyote (peyotal?), but I guess not.
concupiscence: Sexual desire, referring to the Sirens of Titan themselves.
incipient: in the beginning stages, describing a character's baldness.
scalplock: I can only find this as a two-word phrase: "scalp lock" referring to a tuft of hair on an otherwise shaven head.
brummagem: Showy but inferior and worthless, describing souvenirs.
noblesse oblige: From Google: "the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged." In the book, the human is privileged and the machine/robotic life form is less.
skylarking: Playing a game or doing something just for the fun of it. In the book, an action is described as not skylarking, but rather a strategic move.
sepulchrally: In a manner relating to a tomb or burial (knowing the definition of sepulcher would have helped). This referred to an apparently gravely ill character's speech.
salubrious: Promoting health, referring in the book to the climate.

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