August 2010 | L. D. Mitchell

In Search of the Sesquipedalian


(Oh my God!  Let me know. Thanks in advance!  See you later.)

On those not infrequent occasions when personal and professional communications leave me totally Twitterpated, I long for the solace of the sesquipedalian.

Polysyllabic words, especially long polysyllabic words, don't get much respect nowadays.  They take too much time to read.  They take too much time to pronounce.  You can't tweet 'em.  And since few students are taught Latin or ancient Greek nowadays, most folks can't use a word's roots to unravel a word's meaning. 

So why collect books about polysyllabic words?  It's not like one encounters the sesquipedalian in everyday discourse.  (Well, that's not entirely true. Professionals in a number of fields--e.g., medicine, law, science, linguistics--encounter polysyllabic words on a fairly routine basis.)

But it is perhaps the disappearance of polysyllabic words from "normal" day-to-day communications that makes some book collectors so enamored of titles devoted to the sesquipedelian.

Such titles have a long history.  In, for example, Thomas Speght's The Workes of our Antient and Lerned English Poet, Geffrey Chavcer, newly Printed (1598), one section is devoted to Old and obscure words explaned.  A landmark title in English jurisprudence, Thomas Blount's Nomo Lexicon (1670), offered to interpret ...Such Difficult and Obscure Words and Terms, as are Found Either in Our Common or Statute, Ancient or Modern, Laws. With References to the Several Statutes, Records, Registers, Law-Books, Charters, Ancient Deeds, and Manuscripts, Wherein the Words are Used: And Etymologies, Where They Properly Occur.

Books such as these are a goldmine for fans of the sesquipedalian.  As are dialect dictionaries such as Joseph Wright's magisterial English Dialect Dictionary (1896-1905), regional lexicons such as Georgina Jackson's Shropshire Word Book (1879), and popular (though oft times critically disparaged) works such as Charles Mackay's Lost Beauties of the English Language (1874).

An altogether notable book collecting pursuit.  Assuming, of course, that one does not suffer from hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia....