The Lexicon: A Cornucopia Of Wonderful Words (1996) by William F. Buckley Jr.; A Review

William F. Buckley’s The Lexicon (published by Harcourt Brace & Company and described as a “pocket word guide”) is a compact reference of uncommon words, which places emphasis not simply on the rarity of the words included, but also, as one might induce from the inclusion of cornucopia in the title, the applicable breadth and variety of those words. Omitted are such narrow oddities as arachibutyrophobia (ie. the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of one’s mouth); a word which Buckley thought belonged in the “zoo section” of dictionaries. The utility of such special case, single-use words as the aforementioned, to general discourse, (then, as now) are, obviously, minimal. Thus, their omission doubtless bowdlerized the volume considerably from what it would otherwise be, should its author have saw fit to include as many arcane and ancient lexical peculiarities as could be found, without regard to utility.

The consequence of this view on the book itself is that it is rather light on inkhornisms and consists primarily of words that tend to sit at the back of the average reader’s mind, like boxes of old clothing in an ill-ventured and moth-proofed attic; such as aberrant (ie. a person whose behavior departs substantially from the standards for behavior in his group) and bellwether (ie. the guide by which one measures other data), as well as a sprinkling of latin phrases such as ab initio (ie. from the beginning) and caeteris paribus (ie. if all other relevant things remain unaltered); and more atypical offerings, such as asservation (ie. an assertion made in very positive form; a solemn assertion), buncombe (ie. talk that is empty, insincere, or merely for effect; humbug), cacoethes (ie. an uncontrollable desire), and enjambement (ie. continuation in prosody of the sense in a phrase beyond the end of a verse or couplet; the running over of a sentence from one line into another so that closely related words fall in different lines).

Every word featured is accompanied, in addition to its definition, by a example of its use in a sentence; often, a wry, scathing observation of some political situation or personality of the time or utilization of Buckley’s fictive works (all citations from his published oeuvre). It is these amusing asides (in addition to a number of cartoons by Arnold Roth) which lend the book its singularity and readability—that quality so often and ironically lacking in written works concerning language.

The Highly Selective Dictionary For The Extraordinarily Literate (1997)

“The Highly Selective Dictionary can be thought of as an antidote to the ongoing, poisonous effects wrought by the forces of linguistic darkness—aided by permissive lexicographers who blithely acquiesce to the depredations of unrestrained language butchers.”


—Eugene Ehrlich, Preface to The Highly Selective Dictionary For The Extraordinarily Literate.

Eugene Ehrlich’s The Highly Selective Dictionary For The Extraordinarily Literate (Harper Collins, 1997) is a treasure trove of obscure words. The 192 page book is divided into six sections, Acknowledgements, a Preface, Pronunciation Notes, a Introduction and, lastly, The Dictionary proper and features such obtuse and oft-unuttered words as blatherskite (a person given to blathering), dysphemism (a unpleasant or derogatory word or phrase substituted for a more pleasant and less offensive one) and galimatias (confused or unintelligible talk).

One of the unique strengths of the book is its omission of commonplace words whose meaning(s) are widely known (such as “door,” or, “car”). In leaving aside [near]omnipresent words, the book focuses wholly on those words a common English reader is apt not to know, which sets it apart from other reference dictionaries that include words which most, quite simply, will not ever need to look-up. It might also be remarked that the proliferation of the internet, which was not so pronounced upon the writing of the book as it is now, further mitigates the need to include commonplace words in reference dictionaries, given the readiness with which they can be accessed through the web.

However, simply because one can find obscure words online doesn’t mean that one will (in a suitable timeframe, if at all)—hence the importance of having a reference book to hand. To this end, The Highly Selective Dictionary is excellent.

You can find the book online at Thriftbooks, Amazon, or Ebay.

Cover image: Man wearing Gernsback Isolator (invented 1925) at writing desk.

Book Recommendation: The Best Punctuation Book, Period. (2014) by June Casagrande

Most writers know how to use a comma, period, exclamation point, and quotation marks, but very few will know how to modify the use of the aforementioned punctuation marks for the multiple, different style formats without guidance. For example, is it correct to place a comma before or after and? The answer is: sometimes, sometimes not (it depends on the format one is writing within).

To mitigate confusion one could simply look up the rules online through a grammar website, but that would generally take far longer consulting a dogeared and highlighted copy of grammar book, since you would have to find a website with all the grammatical rules in question (often this would required hopping around from site to site) and then find a site (or sites) which contained the requisite style formats to be used.

To circumvent the aforementioned scenario and, at the same time, improve your grammar, one could do worse than to consult June Casagrande’s The Best Punctuation Book, Period. The book contains numerous examples of proper use (and abuse) of the comma, period, exclamation point, question mark, em dash, en dash and many more, and also features a lengthy, alphabetically-organized section, titled ‘Punctuation A To Z,’ which lists a word, phrase, or abbreviation, alongside its recommended variations across multiple, primary-style formats (such as: book style, news style, science style and academic style).

For general purposes, Casagrande’s punctuation compilation makes for excellent reference material. There is even utility in the book’s last-page synopsis-advert:

Great writing isn’t born, it’s built—sentence by sentence.