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David Foster Wallace’s Contribution to the Writer’s Thesaurus

By Ashley Bray, Intern Extraordinaire

Few people can get excited over thesauruses like writers can, and as a writer and student myself, I eagerly sat down to take a look at the new Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. I was immediately drawn to the Word Notes, which are comments from contributing authors about word entries. I love these notes because they bring you inside the heads of authors to show you just what they are thinking about certain words— a privilege a budding writer almost never gets! I looked up a bunch of notes by David Foster Wallace in light of his recent death, and I wanted to share my favorites.

One of the more interesting notes I came across was for pulchritude, which is a synonym for beauty. Wallace points out that this word is anything but beautiful:

“A paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adjectival form pulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the very opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adjective), colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others; there are at least a dozen more. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves.”

Well, Wallace is right about the ugliness of pulchritude. Words like putrid and sepulcher come to mind before beauty ever does. Wallace also points out a very interesting activity that I think appeals to word-lovers just as much as “school-age kids.” I decided to take his suggestion in a different direction and started to make a list of words that do correlate with their meaning. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Bedraggled
  • Labyrinthine
  • Bubble
  • Prickly
  • Stuck
  • Pierce

What words can you think of that are either paradoxical or parallel to their meanings?

Wallace also wrote an awesome entry for hairy. Here’s another word game for you— how many different ways can you think of to say the word hairy?

You’d be surprised at the answer. Wallace writes about 22 different ways (and two additional classifications) to say the word hairy. I won’t list them all here, but I’ll give you a taste of some of the most “hair-raising” (excuse the pun):

  • Glabrous: “the loveliest of all hair-related adjectives, means having no hair (on a given part) at all. Please note that glabrous means more baby’s-bottom-hairless than bald or shaved, though if you wanted to describe a bald person in an ironically fancy way you could talk about his glabrous dome or something.” Quite frankly, after that description how could you not want to find a way to use glabrous in your writing?
  • Tomentose: “means ‘covered with dense little matted hairs’— baby chimps, hobbits’ feet, and Robin Williams are all tomentose.” Need I comment further on this gem?
  • Crinite: “means ‘hairy or possessed of a hair-like appendage,’ though its mainly a botanical term and would be a bit eccentric applied to a person.” I don’t care if it’s eccentric— I smell a story centering on a person with a “hair-like appendage.”

Come on fellow writers, any takers?

Recent Comments

  1. roervimonal


  2. Neil Fitzgerald

    An interesting post.

    Surely we are here wandering into the classic lexical dichotomy of autological vs hereological – words that refer to themselves (tiny, pentasyllabic, seventeen-lettered) vs words that don’t refer to themselves – monosyllabic, huge, abbreviated.

    All of which could bring us very neatly to the mindblowing Grelling–Nelson paradox:

    “All adjectives, it would seem, must be either autological or heterological, for each adjective either describes itself, or it doesn’t. The Grelling–Nelson paradox arises when we consider the adjective “heterological.

    Is “heterological” a heterological word? If the answer is ‘yes’, “heterological” is autological (leading to a contradiction). If the answer is ‘no’, “heterological” is heterological (again leading to a contradiction).”(SourceWikipedia)

  3. Maud Newton: Blog

    […] month the OUP blog looked at a few other DFW […]

  4. Brooke McQuale

    I believe I have an interesting situation which I had not experienced before and have not since. Quite some years ago my mother referred to one of our dogs (Henry, a rather portly Dachshund) as being a succubus. At the time I did not know the meaning of the word (although, at the time I did, taking, as one might comprehend the meaning of an unfamiliar word, by the context of the sentence (or, as in this case, the setting) it is found in). But, to be sure and after years of being told “to look it up” when asking the definition of a word, I proceeded to the nearest dictionary only to find that, according to it, my mother had grossly misused the word. When I reproached my mother (an English major and avid reader—which may actually explain why she used the word in the manner she did) informing her (with some amount of short-live schadenfreude) of the proper meaning of the word(Look it up!) to which she replied “Of course I know what the word means, I wasn’t using it that way, but merely meant that Henry looks like what succubus sounds like.” To me this is one of the finer examples of poetic license.

  5. Alex

    Adjectival is itself adjectival.

  6. Brooke

    Pedantic is itself pedantic

  7. […] a ‘word note‘ for the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, American writer David Foster Wallace […]

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