This week I happened to reread Malcolm Lowrey’s Under the Volcano, which I last read probably forty years ago or more. It’s not one of my favourite books, but many people like it a lot, and I’m not writing this blog to give my opinions. Whether I like it or not, I grant that it’s a remarkable book in its way, and one of its ways of being remarkable is its diction. (Page references are to the 1947 Reynal & Hitchcock edition.)
English has a large vocabulary. The base vocabulary of the most English common words is largely Germanic, inherited from Old English. But added to that ancestral heritage are many borrowings from French, Latin, Greek, and many other languages. For a thousand years English has welcomed words from other languages in a way that few other languages have. In future posts I will talk about some of these borrowings; already in earlier posts I have mentioned such borrowed words as helicopter, pneumonia, amnesia, and so on. But a large part of the non-Germanic vocabulary is by now completely assimilated, and the distinction between Germanic and borrowed words in the English vocabulary is often exaggerated. A lot of this large English vocabulary isn’t used all that much, though it’s there in the dictionary. Some writers tend to stick to the familiar words, but there are writers who like the less common words, and Lowrey is one of these.
Lowrey’s story is set in Mexico, and Lowrey uses a good deal of Spanish. (The major character significantly mistranslates a Spanish phrase, which then is repeated to become the very last words of the novel.) The use of foreign languages in fiction is an interesting topic of its own, but that’s not what I’m concerned with here. I’m interested in his use of words which are completely English but not very common.
Of course what is familiar to one person may not be familiar to another. I will list the words that I felt to be uncommon, and particularly those I had to look up. You may disagree with one or another of my judgments, but I hope that overall you will agree that these are unfamiliar words. So here’s my list, in no particular order: plangent, ostiole, horripilating, recusancy, syncope, cloacal, nutation, crenellation, mirador, bartizan, machicolations, pharos, retiform, crepitate, mingitorio, circumfluent, entabulature, archivolt, reboant, nutant, tabid, winze, floriferous, imbricated, eructating, empyrean, claqueur.
Most of these Lowrey uses just once or twice, but I counted plangent five times (pp. 4, 58, 108, 252, 334) and I’m not sure I caught all of them. Clearly there’s something about plangent that he likes. I thought I knew what plangent means, more or less, but I wanted to make sure, so I looked it up: “(of a sound) loud, reverberating, and often melancholy”. Here is the first time it occurs: “As the processions winding down from the cemetery down the hillside behind the hotel came closer the plangent sounds of their chanting were borne to the two men” (4). Here’s another: “From a doorway came the plangent chords of a guitar” (252). I think Lowrey’s use of the word is precise and appropriate.
I am less convinced by Lowrey’s use of reboant (37), which means reverberating loudly (from the Greek verb “boaô”, “to shout”). Lowrey uses this in one of his enormous sentences, almost a page long, to describe the sound of a freight train. I suppose it means what he wants it to mean, but a word is more than its meaning. The very unfamiliarity of this word draws attention to itself and away from what it is trying to describe.
What about ostiole? In this passage Hugh and Yvonne are in a brewery, and they are served beer by a man who resembles a gamekeeper—why this matters I don’t know: “The gamekeeper vanished through an ostiole back into the machinery; closing away its clamour from them, as might an engineer on shipboard” (113). An ostiole is “a small bodily aperture, orifice, or pore”; it seems to be used mostly as a technical term in biology. The word is derived from the Latin “ostiolum”, which is the diminutive of “ostium”, “entrance, opening, hole”. This time I’m not sure that Lowrey’s usage is appropriate. He could have said, “The gamekeeper vanished through a small door”. What does he gain by using an unusual word in an unusual way?
Several of the words are architectural terms: a mirador (pp. 63, 123, 194) is a tower that offers a panoramic view; a bartizan (194) is an overhanging corner turret at the top of a tower; crenellations (194) are the battlements of a castle; a machicolation (195) is an opening between the supporting corbels of a projecting parapet; an entabulature (14) is a continuous lintel on a classical building; an archivolt (14) is a band of molding around the lower curve of an arch. I don’t know much about architecture, so most of these I had to look up. Perhaps Lowrey is using these words to make an ironic contrast; all of these are most appropriate for classical or medieval architecture, but he’s using them to describe less than imposing buildings in a little Mexican town.
Retiform means having the form of a net; Lowrey uses it to describe a “retiform visored tennis cap” (221). Nutation and nutant both derive from the Latin nuto, which means to nod; Lowrey uses nutation (188) to characterize his hero’s drunken gait and nutant (44) to describe the nodding of trees in the wind. Mingitorio is just the Spanish word for a urinal; perhaps it doesn’t belong on this list, but Lowrey uses it (23, 90) without indicating that it’s Spanish, and I had to look it up.
Mostly I think Lowrey uses his unusual words correctly, but there are some that I question. Lowrey writes, “Outside, in the sunlight, in the backwash of tabid music from the still-continuing ball, Yvonne waited again” (51). Tabid means a wasting away, from the Latin tabes, which means a decay, especially from a disease, and the English word tabes means the late stages of syphilis. A winze is a connection between two different levels in a mine; Lowrey uses it to describe “a steep narrow street desperate as a winze” (54).
Lowrey is by no means the only writer who uses unusual words. This week I’m rereading Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native; this is one of my favourite books, and it’s full of big words. But somehow Lowrey’s diction annoys me in a way that Hardy’s doesn’t. Some of Lowrey’s vocabulary I’m glad to know, though I’m not likely to use or to come across reboant or ostiole or winze. I would be very interested to read your reactions to all this. Do you mind this kind of diction or do you welcome it? Are you willing to look words up as you read a novel? How much? Do you think a writer pays a price by using diction that may exclude some readers, and when is that price worth paying?