Thursday, 22 December 2016

Self Centred

These days there are lots of things I do and lots of things I think of doing that are conceptually so recent that they don't exist in linguistic terms.  For example, I may suddenly be reminded of someone I used to know and have lost touch with and then I have an impulse to look them up on the Internet to find out what has become of them.

The word for the impulse I know already: it is "nosiness'. The action of actually looking them up in this context has not yet been granted a special label - it is just one among the many things that fall under the "idly Googling" umbrella, I suppose.

In this situation - and many others of a similar nature, where I am attempting to describe a situation that would not have existed even quite recently - I find myself thinking, "There must be a word for that."

Perversely, given that I often think there must be words for things that I don't know words for, when people use words that do already exist for things but that I don't know, I absolutely loathe it.

The worst offender in this regard, in my experience, is Will Self, especially when he is talking on the radio or television. On such occasions, he deliberately uses words that no-one else ever utters out loud. For instance, on Radio 4 the other evening, banging on about something or other, he used the word "exogamous". I have never ever come across "exogamous" before.

I don't think I object because I am ashamed of my own ignorance, so what exactly is my problem? Surely, if a word is in existence, it is our duty to ensure that it is used? What else can it possibly be there for, if not for use in communication? And the great strength of the English language is supposed to be its rich flexibility, its enormous capacity, its ability to be the linguistic equivalent of an avoska, an ever expanding string bag, (yes, the astonishing hypocrisy of complaining about those who use obscure English words while throwing in even more obscure words from Russian - not at all lost on me).

Perhaps my objection arises from an underlying belief in a sort of jeans and T-shirt core wardrobe vocabulary, made up of words for talking and general every day use. Words like 'exogamous', on the other hand, are reserved for Sunday best and gala occasions - academic writing and other equally high-flown usage, excluded from the spoken language, kept purely for text.

Looked at that way, it occurs to me that what Will Self may be indulging in is really a kind of attempt at lexical punk. When he throws words from one register of the language into street talk, Self may be linguistically pairing laddered stockings and ragged denim with a Savile Row dinner jacket and an antique silk top hat.


  1. I first encountered "exogamous" (or maybe "exogamy") in something of Ortega y Gasset's about forty years ago. More recently I found "exogamic" in Anthony Burgess's memoir Little Wilson and Big God, Chapter Six: "a sound exogamic instinct".

    Now, I understand that citing Burgess as precendent is no convincing defense to the charge of showing off. As for Ortega y Gasset, I have no idea what the Spanish might have been--have no idea, really, what the essay was in which it occurred (there may have been Romans in it). And I doubt I have used the word in conversation in about forty years, and then it was while bantering with a friend.

    On the other hand, what better expression comes to mind? One can speak of the "endogamous", or anyway their offspring, as "inbred", and there are expressions such as "marrying the girl next door" or "marrying one's high school sweetheart." But for the opposite case, I can't think of one.

    1. There are words - and I think 'exogamous' is one of them - where it is actually clearer to use a phrase than the single word that wraps up their meaning. Most of the words I feel this about tend to be Latin or Greek derivatives, I think. So, if I'd been talking I'd have said, "People who generally choose partners from outside their own group", because then I'd know everyone listening would understand what I was talking about.