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Essay Fifteen, Even More People Whom You'll Meet
Once you begin to draw distinctions among words, the world comes into sharper focus. Things for which you previously had no name now take on a precision that brings delight and understanding. When you know people’s names, you begin to recognize them more and more; when you learn the scope and reach of adjectives, you also become more attuned to the subjects they describe.
I will look at around a dozen more adjectives in this chapter with which you can arm yourself to describe people. A few will describe positive traits; the rest are somewhat or considerably negative. Perhaps that indicates something about the nature of humanity (or my perception of it): the unattractive features sometimes outweigh the winsome traits.
The positive terms I will describe are benignant, ebullient, and buoyant. The neutral or negative are wan, unctuous, petulant, peevish, peckish (1), raffish, bumptious, and feckless. As your mother always told you, begin with the positive.
(1) Microsoft Word (at least in 2010), didn't let me write the word peckish; it changed it to puckish. Other than my (false) gratitude to the program for "correcting" me, I am truly grateful to it for suggesting another adjective, puckish, which I wasn't going to introduce. It is derived fro Puck, a mischievous sprite or goblin thought to haunt the countryside. This spirit was, at first, thought to be malicious, but by the late Middle Ages was characterized as "full of fun," as portrayed especially by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Thus, to be puckish means to be impish, mischievous, capricious. OED, s.v. One might have a puckish grin, be a puckish writer or wit, or possess puckish charm.
Benignant sounds as if it should be an ancient word, but it was only invented about 220 years ago in order to correspond to or match its opposite: malignant. If one has a dangerous tumor it is malignant, but if it is not dangerous it is benign and not benignant. But malign and benignant, two of our four matching words, have all but dropped out of regular English usage, thus depriving both malignant and benign of their respective mates. I will try here to redress the situation to a small extent.
Begnignant means kindly, gracious, benevolent, favorable, or beneficial. Key to understanding it, however, is its slight suggestion of condescension or patronage, according to the OED. Yet, the Century Dictionary has the following take on it: “benignant is more tender or gentle; gracious is more civil or condescending; both are winning.” (2) A statue of the nursing Virgin Mary was called “she of the exposed breast and benignant mien.” (3) I suppose that suggests some condescension. But then you can have phrases such as “benignant forces” or a “benignant strategy,” which imply kindness without patronage. I tend to agree, however, with the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms, when it says:
“benignant stress(es) mildness, serenity, and mercifulness more than do kind and kindly; they also often imply graciousness and therefore are more frequently applied to superiors than to equals…” (4)
(2) Century Dictionary, s.v.
(3) "Illuminating How Bodies are Built for Sociability," New York Times, April 30, 1996, 1.
(4) Op. Cit., p. 480.
Two literary examples, from James Fenimore Cooper and Dorothy Parker, will illustrate its use. In Chapter 29 of Last of the Mohicans, Cora is conversing with Tamenund, one of her captors. She tries to make reference to the mercy that her ancestors had shown Tamenund, but he doesn’t recall the favor. So, she tries another tack. She asks him if he is a father.
“The old man looked down upon her from his elevated stand, with a benignant smile on his wasted countenance…” (5)
The “noble” Native American, is condescending a bit to answer her. This example is from the early nineteenth century. Then, from the twentieth century is a poem by a woman who was said to have “the quickest tongue imaginable. . .and the keenest sense of mockery,” Dorothy Parker. (6) In her poem “For a Lady Who Must Write Verse,” she advises a woman not to lay out her inner struggles and vulnerabilities in poetry.
(6) Quotation is here:
“Let your rhymes be tinsel treasures,
Strung and seen and thrown aside. . .
Show your quick, alarming skill in
Tidy mockeries of art;
Never, never dip your quill in
Ink that rushes from your heart. . .
Never print, poor child, a lay on
Love and tears and anguishing
Lest a cool, benignant Phaon
Murmur, ‘Silly little thing!’” (7)
Phaon was a ugly boatman in Greek mythology whom Aphrodite made beautiful. Sappho fell in love with him, but he soon grew to resent her and belittle her. Thus, in both usages we see the word benignant taking on a rather noble or condescending air. Just perfect, perhaps, to describe some people you know. (8)
(7) Text is here:
(8) More well-known to people is Dorothy Parker's poem "Resume" (re su MAY), about ways to kill yourself: "Razors pain you,/ Rivers are damp;/ Acids stain you;/ And drugs cause cramp./ Guns aren't lawful;/ Nooses give;/ Gas smells awful;/ You might as well live."
Characteristics You Want to Avoid
A feckless person lacks vigor, is feeble or weak; is helpless, irresponsible, shiftless, valueless, or useless. The old Scottish term feck meant “power, force, strength, vigor” or, alternatively, “the bulk, the greater part.” Thomas Carlyle could write, in 1823: “I am so feckless at present that I have never yet had the heart to commence it.” From 1905: “As for the girls, I own Nellie is a bittie soft and feckless.” Something or someone ineffective is feckless. One might have a feckless study or a feckless attempt to accomplish something. You can have feckless politicians or a feckless strategy. Someone can write a book about a feckless, indecisive prince or king. When you perceive that Congress or others might be “in the pocket” of Big Pharma or other interests, you might say that Congress is a feckless bunch. An essay trying to assess the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Catholicism on his work described his upbringing this way: “Born Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald in St. Paul, MN, on September 24, 1896, and baptized in early October, he had for parents the feckless son of an old, shabby-genteel Maryland Catholic family. . .” (9) If you want one easy “word-play” to remember feckless, think of this: ineffecktive. Ought to get you there. . .
If a feckless person has too little energy and thereby is useless or weak, a bumptious person is the opposite. A bumptious person bumps others—that is, s/he is “offensively self-conceited; self-assertive.” Or, alternatively, a bumptious person is pushy (hence, s/he “bumps”) and liable to give and take offense easily. A bumptious leader is full of bluster and self-conceit. A Washington Times article described a meeting between (then Governor) Teddy Roosevelt and Gilbert Pinchot as follows:
“At their first meeting at the governor’s mansion in Albany, the bumptious Roosevelt challenged Pinchot to, in succession, a wrestling match and then a boxing tryout." (10)
(10) Jason Snodes, "When Fire Came Over the Mountain," Washington Times, October 12, 2009, A17
In John Wayne movies, you often have bumptious riverboat gamblers or small town toughs taunting Wayne until they are knocked senseless by a pile-driving left hook. One can have the bumptious energy of a roller derby smackdown, the bumptious arrogance of a chief executive. In Lovel the Widower (1860) Thackeray could write:
“He is rude; he is ill-bred; he is bumptious beyond almost any man I ever knew; he is spoiled not a little by prosperity—but he is magnanimous; he can own that he has been in the wrong; and oh me; what a quantity of Greek he knows.” (11)
The word bumptious is often used to describe Ernest Hemingway. “In the summer of 1918, a callow, bumptious Hemingway arrived in Italy looking for adventure.” Or, in a 1993 biography of Hemingway, James R. Mellow could write: “In his letter to Kashkin, Hemingway was both bumptious and personal in his rebuttal of Communism.” Hemingway wrote:
“You write like a patriot and that is your blind spot. I’ve seen a lot of patriots and they all died just like anybody else if it hurt bad enough and once they were dead their patriotism was only good for legends.” (12)
(12) Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences, p. 480.
Bumptious response, right?
When you talk about raffish, you are in a different world altogether. A raffish person is “rakish; unrefined; sleazy; non-conventional; disreputable; worthless.” (13) Let’s look for a moment at the first word: rakish. A rake is not only something with which you gather leaves, but is a person, a “fashionable or stylish man of dissolute or promiscuous habits.” The Rake’s Progress is a series of eight eighteenth century paintings by the English Artist William Hogarth. (14) If you study these eight, even superficially, you know all you need to know about a rake.
(13) Combining definitions from the OED and Century Dictionary.
(14) Article is here:
Raffish includes the concept of rakish or dissolute, but includes also a sense of lack of regard for convention or for being mischievous or offbeat. A 1989 article talked about Sag Harbor (NY) in these terms: “[It] has a more raffish, agreeable, even faintly Bohemian air.” (15) Now, in 2010, as a friend who resides in Sag Harbor has told me, it has become “Hamptonized.” Someone may have a sort of “raffish charm and aristocratic sang-froid” (coolness, indifference). A raffish smile may conceal mischief.
(15) OED, s.v., Def. 2.
An article entitled “Henry Fairlie: The Gentleman Delinquent,” shines helpful light on the word. Fairlie, as Christopher Hitchens says, had the audacity to appear live on the BBC to support the Tory Government’s invasion of Egypt in 1956 while he was on the run from the law and already cited for contempt of court. Hitchens goes on:
“The word raffish might well have been coined for him….[Quoting now the editor of an anthology of Fairlie’s writings] ‘even in the louche world of Fleet Street, where every vice found a champion, he distinguished himself: he drank; his finances were a crime against responsibility; his charm and darkly handsome looks availed him of endless affairs.” (16)
(16) New York Times, June 12, 2009, Book Review Section.
In this quotation the dual uses of raffish are combined: dissolute living and a charming person. The quintessential raffish individual in American history is PT Barnum, though Maureen Dowd, in a 2009 column, used the adjective to describe former President Bill Clinton.
The word unctuous (pronounced UNGK chu us) owes its origin, through the word unction, to oil. If you are unctuous, you are “fulsome, oleaginous, oily, slick, soapy.” (17) Someone who is unctuous is “complacently agreeable or self-satisfied.” When you think of raffish, you think of PT Barnum; when you think of unctuous, you think of a traditional butler. “'Yes, Sir; yes ma’am,' he intoned, without the least sense that he had been at all affected by the news communicated to him." An unctuous person tries to be ingratiating. Often there is a tone of gravity, seriousness, and moral uprightness that goes with the unctuous person. But we perceive this attitude as a bit of a smokescreen, for it veils a hypocritical or otherwise insincere manner of getting what one wants. We usually see the term unctuous with “manner” or “demeanor” or “tone.” Thus, unctuous:
“suggests the assumption, often in hypocrisy, of the tone or manner of one who is grave, devout, or spiritual.” (18)
(17) Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 365.
Nathaniel Hawthorne could write, as quoted in the Dictionary of Synonyms:
“the look—was, perhaps, unctuous, rather than spiritual, and had, so to speak, a kind of fleshy effulgence..He..smiled with more unctuous benignity than ever.”
There are topics that tend to bring out the unctuousness of people: the sacredness of the family, the importance of submission to the will of God, the need to obey the law. Those who deliver homilies on these subjects almost always become a little unctuous. Selections from recent uses of the term include: “One of his first ploys is to deliver a sickeningly unctuous spiel about the importance of family” and “in his songs he appears humble and vulnerable; eventually, however, it just sounds unctuous.” One might have an “unctuous opportunistic mayor” or an “unctuous solicitude for guests.” Anyone who is overly serious, moralistic, high-toned in speech and potentially hypocritical is in danger of being unctuous. I think it was particularly unctuous of lawmakers who themselves were having affairs to have condemned President Clinton for his sexual dalliances.
Buoyant and Ebullient; Peevish, Petulant and Peckish
Words sometimes go together. They are often defined in terms of each other; let’s learn a few of them now. To focus on a positive term, I was surprised to see that ebullient has appeared nearly as often as buoyant in the New York Times over the past 30 years (about 140 times per year). Both of them have been taken over from the sciences and are now descriptors of personality. Originally, something that was buoyant had the power to float. Surprisingly, the verb to buoy was invented a generation after buoyant came along (and Shakespeare invented it). But now it most frequently appears in connection with people. If one is buoyant, one is “elastic, light-hearted, cheerful, hopeful, endearingly confident.” It is most often connected with words such as “charm” or “spirit” or “wit” or “loveliness.” Try them on. “Her buoyant charm irradiated the room.” One can also have a buoyant outlook, economy, era, etc.
Actually, before getting to a near-neighbor, ebullient, let’s stop by way of bubbly. The moderate high-brow New York Times may be a little reluctant to use the word in describing someone; it occurs much less frequently than ebullient, but it is a favorite word in conversation to describe a person. Women, mostly, are said to have a “bubbly personality” or demonstrate “bubbly enthusiasm,” but occasionally men are described this way. One can have “a bubbly 27-year old from Italy,” or be “exuberant, outgoing, bubbly and bold.” One New Yorker was described as “bubbly but neurotic,” a rather winsome combination. But other things, in addition to alcohol, can be described as “bubbly.” I was especially taken to see the phrase a “13-year-old girl’s bubbly longueurs” (a longueur is a lengthy passage of writing or music) or to see mention of Louis Spohr’s “bubbly, deftly-wrought Nonet.”
The word ebullient comes from science, and it means “boiling.” In describing the humors of the body, which the seventeenth century still believed in, ebullient means “agitated, hot, effervescent.” (19) Yet, as early as the seventeenth century, the word could be used to describe the “gushing forth” or “enthusiastic” or “overflowing” nature of a person. From 1664: “That fountain of life which ought to be ebullient in every Regenerate Christian.” It wasn’t until the nineteenth century, however, that we have a reference to an ebullient person or feeling. One might have ebullient prose or ebullient commentaries, as well as ebullient people. Ebullient appears most frequently today in describing people, such as “an ebullient 60 year-old software engineer and scooter neophyte from Torrance, CA” or “her ebullient, vaudevillian self, a creature dipped in sawdust and doused with glitter.” I like the combination of two words we have been studying in this 2009 quotation: “an irresistible buoyancy that springs from Mr. Pizzarelli’s guitar and his ebullient personality.” (20)
(19) OED, s.v., Def. 2a.
(20) Stephen Holden, "A Couple's Dialogue: He Gives Her Swing She Gives Him Soul," New York Times, October 19, 2009, C5.
On the other side of the aisle are petulant, peevish and peckish. These words enter into the world of small-mindedness, childish behavior or carping irritability. We have met these people. Petulant derives from the Latin petulans, which means impudent, insolent, immodest, wanton. Its modern meaning is:
“exhibiting or prone to peevish impatience or irritability, esp. over trivial matters; childishly sulky or bad-tempered.” (21)
(21) OED, s.v., Def. 2.
Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, put the following four words or concepts together: peevish, petulant, waspish, easily offended.” A petulant person tends to act before s/he thinks, and that action is small-minded and bad-tempered. “Archibishop Laud was petulant, passionate, and impatient of contradiction.” Or, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Englishman is very petulant and precise about his accommodation at inns, and on the roads.” Joseph Conrad wrote, in 1919, “We heard a petulant exclamation accompanied by childlike stamping with both feet.” The American Spectator called the attacks on the Clinton’s in 1994 the “petulant character attacks.” A recent cornucopia of synonyms appears in the description of a new TV show. “Mr. Lewis does not become a better person. He remains greedy, petulant, small-minded, arrogant without justification, ill-tempered, ungenerous—singularly detestable.” (22)
(22) Gina Bellafante, "Foreclosed Delusions in Reality TV's Home Market," New York's Times, October 25, 2009, p. 18.
A peevish person is “querulous, petulant, ill-tempered, cross, fitful.” (23) But it brings with it a whole family of like-minded words, such as fretful, testy, self-willed, characterized by discontent, childish, silly, foolish, trifling. Recent uses include: “Justice David Souter had so many judicial virtues that it may seem peevish to question his legacy.” Or “Dyson is something far more formidable than just the latest peevish right-wing climate-change denier.” One can have the “peevish impatience of the absolute monarch” or the “peevish relish of a person retaliating in anger.” If you keep your eyes and ears open, peevish is all around you. (23)
(23) Century Dictionary, s.v., Def. 1.
As is peckish, even though my word processing program makes it nearly impossible for me to type the word. If we understand that to peck means either to gather food or to strike/pick with the beak, we understand that a peckish person is one who “picks” at you or a situation. The English use the word as a synonym for “hungry.” “When I was feeling peckish, I went out for a bite to eat.” But North American usage, as the OED tells us, focuses on he meaning of “irritable, peevish, touchy.” (24) The word used this way first appeared in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1857: “I have observed that mothers are apt to be oversweet on their daughters-in-law at first, and terribly peckish on them afterwards.” The picture I get through this is of a chicken pecking at grain. One might have “peckish offspring” or “peckish guests” or “peckish friends.”
(24) OED, s.v., Def. 3.
Finishing With a Few Words on Wan
Don’t think that wan’s brevity means that it isn’t uber-useful. Though its original derivation is uncertain, its predominant meaning today is “pallid, faded, sickly; unusually or unhealthily pale.” It is most frequently applied to someone’s face, though it also can describe an atmosphere or energy that is given off. Yet, as a few illustrations to come will show, it can be used to describe a pallor that betokens amazement, fright or overloaded emotion rather than simply a lack of energy. As early as 1300 we have this sentence: “For lene he was, and wan of face.” But it could also be used simply as a term for someone’s physical description. From 1561: “In like manner where shee is somewhat fatter or leaner than reasonable sise, or wannter, or browner, to helpe it with garments.”
By the seventeenth century, however, wan was associated with weakness, colorlessness, sickness. “So thin, so ghastly meager, and so wan, So bare of flesh, he scarce resembled Man.” Or, putting a few of those words together, from 1748: “The wan and meager countenances of the crew.”After giving birth, a woman could be described as “wan from her maternal throes. . .” Dickens talked about a “crowd of wan, emaciated faces.” And, today, wan often appears either singly or with other adjectives. One can have the wan appearance of a patient or the wan models who nonchalantly stroll down the runway. Then we have phrases such as “thin and wan” or “wan and tepid.” We particularly resonate with language describing a washed-up athlete: “I also think of the wan retired athlete, stricken by the heart trouble that would indirectly kill him.” I was particularly touched in the last month, as I saw an old friend (he was 88) grow more and more wan as he battled his cancer, before succumbing a few days ago.
But the story of wan is not complete without telling a bit about its appearance in Emily Dickenson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dickenson, that insightful poet of mid-to-late nineteenth century Amherst, MA, is brilliantly described in Barton Levi St. Armand’s study Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society (1986). One of the things she struggled with, as did her co-stater Nathaniel Hawthorne, was a Calvinist heritage that both shaped and repelled her. On one occasion, she went to hear the renowned Calvinist preacher, Rev. Edwards Amasa Park, deliver a sermon. In a Nov. 21, 1853 letter to her brother, she wrote of the occasion:
“Oh Austin, you don’t know how we all wished for you yesterday. We had such a splendid sermon from that Prof. Park-I never heard anything like it, and don’t expect to again, till we stand at the great white throne, and ‘he reads from the book, the Lamb’s book.’ The students and chapel people all came, to our church, and it was very full, and still—so still, the buzzing of a fly would have boomed like a cannon. And when it was all over, and that wonderful man sat down, people stared at each other, and looked as wan and wild, as if they had seen a spirit, and wondered they had not died.” (25)
(25) Quoted on p. 121 of St. Armand's book.
There are so many things that call for comment here, but the one relevant comment is her use of the adjective wan. Here it is connected in a felicitous phrase with “wild,” and it suggests a kind of pallor that comes from an emotionally draining experience. One isn’t dead or tepid; one is overly jazzed about something. One has, as it were, just seen a ghost.
I thought that it was brilliant and not a bit unusual for Dickinson to have used that phrase, and I would have thought she was the inventor of it until I realized that Coleridge was, more than 50 years earlier. In one of his epic poems, entitled "Christabel," Coleridge writes of spells and trances. He writes:
“She said: and more she could not say;
For what she knew she could not tell,
O’er-mastered by the mighty spell.
Why is thy cheek so wan and wild,
So, we see in the use of this word not only in instructive usage (wan can be the lack of color brought on by emotional overload and not simply of lack of energy or ennui), but the way that the poetic tradition develops. Someone says the word or invents the phrase (Coleridge in this instance). Fifty years later it is picked up in a letter. And it lives. The same happened in Keats’ “Ode to A Nightingale.” While speaking about that memorable romantic evening, where he heard the beautiful bird’s song, he let drop a phrase, “Tender is the Night,” which F. Scott Fitzgerald picked up almost exactly a century later to be the title of a novel. William Styron picked up Milton’s “darkness visible” from Book I of Paradise Lost to be the title of his memoir about depression. Be aware of the wonderful uses of words, and the way that phrases can catch the consciousness. You may never write a novel or be a noted author, but your awareness of words and careful use of them can go a long way to clarifying emotions and situations. . .and to understanding people.
I need one more chapter on adjectives describing people.