Bill Long 6/15/06
Not Often Used, but Useful Nevertheless
Many of the words I review in these essays are obscure--words that no one, except specialists, ever use. But there are many words in English, mostly verbs and adjectives, which express precise concepts and ought to be part of our working vocabularies, even if they are usually ignored. The goal of this and the next essay is to give you some of these words, from pages 1100ff. of the Collegiate. I put this as the "first" essay of this series, even though it is nearly the last written, because of my ultimate commitment to make words useful in language.
1. Saxicolous. Derived from two Latin words meaning "rocks" and "living," something saxicolous lives on rocks. The word is usually confined to the botanists (who speak of saxicolous lichens), but you could expand the subjects that live on rocks with little imagination. Not only could you speak of ants and other serpiginous (see word below) creatures that spend a good deal of time "on the rocks," but you might talk about people who build their houses perched on steep cliffs as living a saxicolous existence. While I am on the "colous" idea, you should be aware that nidicolous means "living in the nest" while nidifugous means "fleeing the nest." I think these latter words, usually used by specialists in birds, could be easily applied to teenagers.
2. Scandent. This word, meaning "climbing" or "ascending" is also confined almost fully to botany or zoology, but the sound of the word is so rich that I don't think we ought to leave it in the hands of the scientists. I mentioned elsewhere that I loved "ent" words such as lambent or candent, and scandent is no exception. But we have to get beyond the botanists: from 1821: "Root perennial, stem scandent, red." Ho, hum. If we can have a scandent plant, why not also have scandent emotions? Why not have rapidly scandent anger? Not only does one erect a trellis and interweave it with scandent plants in order to cover a wall or an area, but one might have scandent feelings or hopes that develop like scandent plants. Scandent fears may grow and wrap around the heart like choking tendrils. A little time with scandent will yield some rewards.
3. Semelparous. Something that is semelparous reproduces only once during its lifetime. The word was only coined in 1954 in the Quarterly Review of Biology: "Nearly all annual plants and animals, as well as many protozoa, bacteria, insects and some perennial forms...are semelparous." Once the scientists have invented the term, they think they own it. But why can't we connect it with some of the latest advice feminist scholars are giving women? Last generation women were urged to have two children, but this generation the advice from feminists is: if you want to get married, get married; if you want a child, have a child, but don't have two (On the theory that you won't be able to develop your own life if you have more than one child). Thus, women are urged to become semelparous today. I think that advice will fall on deaf ears in many communities.
4. Sequacious. We easily see the root for "follow" in this word, and a sequacious person is one who is intellectually servile to another. More precisely, the OED has it that it is "given to slavish or unreasoning following of others (esp. in matters of thought or opinion)." Following from this is the notion of sequacious as "easily molded to any required shape; ductile; pliable; flexible." These definitions are called "obsolete" by the OED, but that is just one dictionary's opinion. I think that one of the major problems in our supposedly critical-thinking age is sequacious people--people who just follow along unquestioningly because that is their wont. We can have sequacious disciples or sequacious hearers. One 19th century biographer spoke of his conversion to Catholicism "not by the contagion of a sequacious zeal, but by the inner force of an inherited pietism." Whenever someone is intellectually servile to the agenda of another, I think of the word sequacious.
5. Serpiginous. Something serpiginous creeps. The general term is serpigo, derived from a Latin word meaning "creeping," and is a word for a spreading skin disease. Of course, the medical establishment has just about taken it over: "A serpiginous eruption, or rather a pocky itch." Or, one can speak of serpiginous gangrene. But once we loose the word from its connection to spreading bodily maladies, we can speak of it in psychological or emotional terms. One might have serpiginous anxiety or fear or even rumors; one might speak of the spreading branches of a tree as serpiginous; the scandent vines that climb the trellis are also serpiginous. Whereas the word serpentine emphasizes the sinuous or snake-like winding of something, the word serpiginous only stresses its spreading character. Or one could combine images: "The rumors spread down the streets like a serpiginous eruption of the skin, splaying in all directions at once without the hint that they ever would come to rest."
6. Skive. The verb skive has three meanings in the OED, but the Collegiate only has one of them, and we will stick with that one. It has "to cut off (as leather or rubber) in think layers: PARE." The word may be related to the Middle English noun "shive" (a slice of bread), but you are not interested in that, so let's keep it as a verb. From 1825 we have the definition: "to pare off the thicker parts of hides, to make them of uniform substance, in order to their being tanned." Maybe it suffices to have "pare" in English, but I think skive carries with it such an onomatopoeic brilliance that you might be able to hear or see the leather being sliced as you listen to the word. One might speak of being skived (rather than "burned," which is much overused today) when something touches us closely and "slices" us to pieces. We often speak of being "torn up" or "scalded;" I think the depth of our psychological assaults merits other words; hence skive. But the word might also take on a positive meaning--if you are skived you are being "pruned" or "trimmed" in preparation for greater use. Thus, the word has a sort of duality to it, even though it is not used by anyone even in its singularity. Maybe you will be the first..
One more essay on this theme will take me into the Bee..(which is the day after tomorrow).
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long