12 Words I Had to Look Up While Reading The Corrections

This is not a book review, but I recently read (yet another) “How To Write Real Good” book by Arthur Plotnik. This one is called Spunk & Bite, a play on the title of another How To book called Elements of Style by Strunk and White, published in 1918’s, which makes it, well, to be kind, geriatric.

Elements of Style was a rather rigid set of rules about what not to do.  Do not affect a breezy manner. Do not inject opinion. Do not use foreign phrases. Do not prefer the offbeat rather than the standard. Do not, do not, do not.

One Do Not is to use words which will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of readers, those “big words” with more than two or three syllables and with which we may not have knowledge of their meanings. There is a lot of truth in this, that an author might not want to offput his audience by using a lot of verbiage which only demonstrates how well that author has mastered the English language. In other words, he’s a show off.

Jonathan Franzen contends that counter to the idea that “difficulty tends to signal excellence”, the writer must connect with readers in exchange for their commitment of time and attention to his work.

Yet Franzen himself does this very thing. Take his novel The Corrections, which I just finished reading for the second time. I found these examples (and more) of words that I either was not sure of or had no idea as to their meaning. (Italics indicates examples in The Corrections.)


Noblesse oblige – as if noblesse oblige. (I had a vague idea of what this meant, but wanted to bolster my confidence a little in order to use it without incurring smirks of condescension from others.)

A French phrase meaning “nobility obliges”. To imply that with wealth, power and prestige come responsibility. Sometimes used derisively, in condescension or hypocritical social responsibility. The term is sometimes applied, in American English especially, to suggest an obligation for the more fortunate to help the less fortunate.

“Certain persons in politics need not fear being cast into a perception of noblesse oblige.”


Misanthropy – misanthropy and sourness. (I am a little reluctant to admit I had to look up the work “misanthropy” which I felt I should already know, but wanted a better explanation.)

A hatred, dislike or distrust of humankind.

“Dude, whenever I go to a Wal-mart, I get this totally weird feeling of, like, misanthropy.”


Intransigently – folded her arms intransigently.

In a manner that is stern and indicates refusal to agree or compromise, inflexible.

“Certain members of the House of Representatives are motivated to behave intransigently.”


Invidious – he could already hear her invidious descants on the topic of

Intension to create ill will or give offense; hateful. Offensively or unfairly discriminating or injurious. Tending to cause animosity, resentment or envy.

“Chill, woman.  Everyone has to go through the body scan so no need to be overly invidious here.”


Pullulating  – he considered waiting for a less populated [elevator] car, a ride less pullulating with mediocrity and body smells.

To breed, produce, increase rapidly, swarm or teem.

“Facebook is no longer a social network considered desirable by the Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers since it is pullulating with old people.”


Reverb – absolutely no reverb on a full elevator.

Rebound. If there is no reverb, there is nowhere to go, no escape, trapped, doomed, claustrophobized.

“Wow, I thought I was toast. Came down with a really bad case of The Plague, but I did a complete reverb.”


Riparian – with their damp hair they looked riparian.

Situated or dwelling on the bank of a river or other body of water.

“That shit we used to put on our hair in the sixties? That looked riparian and now they’re doing it again.”


Deliquescence – slushy ferric salts succumbing to their own deliquescence. (This refers to a man’s hobby, an ill-maintained basement laboratory.)

To become liquid by absorbing moisture from the air, to melt away.

I tried but I cannot think of a sentence which takes advantage of this word.


Diurnality – diurnality yielded to a raw continuum of hours.

Behavior, plant or animal, characterized by activity during the day and sleeping at night.

“Man, my diurnality is seriously messed up since I’ve become a narcoleptic.”


Hectoring – her e-mails had been hectoring.

To act in a blustering, domineering or bullying manner.

“So, I’m like, whatever, and she sighs about a million times and I’m like, you are so totally hectoring me here!”


Plangent – her voice was plangent.

A loud, deep sound, resonant, mournful.

“Dude, what’s with the plangent tone? You sound like such a loser.”


Semaphoring – inmates semaphoring, waving their arms like traffic cops.

A system of signaling, usually with special flags held in each hand and various positions of the arms indicate specific letters or numbers.

“The Kardashian Mom is on Oprah and your semaphoring is blocking my view.”


I recommend Spunk & Bite. It is fun to read, the writing fresh and the ideas very usable. It is one of the best I’ve read. You can find it here.

21 thoughts on “12 Words I Had to Look Up While Reading The Corrections

  1. Hmmm…I knew most of these words because I study Latin…I love the one about Facebook pullulating…hilarious! (Pullus means “chick” in Latin, by the way.) Lovely post as always. 🙂

  2. Yikes. I like to think I have a decent vocabulary, but some of those words flew right over my head. And I read “The Corrections”! But I didn’t stop to look them up, so thank you for providing the definitions.

    Writing rules are important, no doubt, but I think breaking them every now and then is not a bad thing. Incomplete sentences are sometimes needed for effect (lord knows I love ’em). Sometimes a breezy style is good. Sometimes a foreign phrase is just what’s needed. But I think the trick is to be mindful of their use so as not to overdo it.

    • Carrie, this being my second time for The Corrections, I may have detected things I didn’t the first time, especially since I read it with more of a critiquing agenda. I didn’t find anything to critique! It was wonderful, the second time around. The point of Spunk & Bite was just as you say, to lay these old, tired rules to rest, that no one is going to make it in today’s literary world using the same old rhetoric, but we need to find ways to make ourselves unique.

  3. The Corrections is in my pile of books to read, so I may get to that soon.

    I read somewhere, which I thought was a good tip, something along the lines of: that if the reader has to look up two or three words in a novel, that is ok, as a bit of education is good. However too many, and the reader will spend more time looking up words than reading your words, which is to say, they are no longer contained in the story, and you are well on the way to losing them. Being mr smartypants benefits no-one other than your own ego, but in most cases, not the readers who want to be able to read your books.

    I thought that was reasonable. If you put in words that people don’t really read or understand, then don’t want to look them up, then what is the point?

    Oh, I didn’t know what several of them meant either!

    • Eliot, The Corrections is so long that it is a formiddable endeavor but well worth it. Talk about beautiful sentences and funny characters and great story telling.

      I think there would be a fine line to using words not everyone is familiar with. It could conceivably deter some readers, but in the case of Mr. Franzen, he couldn’t care less. He does what he does. don’t we all wish we could do the same?

      • I have the Corrections and Freedom in the pile to read. I’ve been reading some of the Game of Thrones books, so these are going to seem short in comparison.

        I suppose not going overboard with unfamiliar words is good advice for a lot of writers, but not necessary for talented ones. Although we shall see if my view changes when I read the books.

      • Elliot, I don’t think his unfamiliar words are much of a distraction. Recommend both of these books highly, but then if you look at Amazon reviews there is a love-hate thing going on with readers and Franzen. Definitely a love on my part.

  4. This cracked me up, as usual! Some of the words I knew, but some of them are just too ‘elitest’ to be all that necessary. The only thing I could think of relating to deliquescent is cotton candy – you’ll have to think of a funny sentence, as you’re a pro at that!

    • You are ahead of me then, because I didn’t know ten of them and was unsure of two. If I think of a funny sentence regarding cotton candy and deliquescent, I will be sure to assign credit to you!

  5. I knew 9 of them – does that make me an elite? I have a science background which definitely helps with some. I’m also the daughter of an English teacher which probably explains the rest of them!

    It’s probably fair enough for Franzen to use difficult words but I wouldn’t try inserting them into any genre fiction, especially romance!

    • Benison, it is good to see you here! If you knew 9 of them, that definitely puts you in the elite category. But yes, we don’t often words of this caliber for women’s fiction.

      I know you share my affection for JF – he can do whatever he wants to do. And he will.

  6. Yeah, but someone else did the writing/research, and I only read the stuff. Besides, I’d have to choose between writing and cooking/eating/groc shopping/laundry/swimming/TV…you get the drift. And I’m not in your league – would rather read your posts!

  7. Hi, Lynn and followers,
    With appreciation for the kind recommendation of my book SPUNK & BITE, I thought I might offer a a small excerpt from the book to distinguish big words used for their own sake from unfamiliar words that deliver some sort of reward to readers (“writer’s words”). All best wishes, Art Plotnik

    Those who want to connect, then, stock their journals with writers’ words—not always the plainest or best-known, but somehow rewarding to the reader. Franzen himself uses words such as solipsistic (self-absorbed) and pemmican (a meat loaf) in his argument, but they turn out to be pretty good chaws in context.

    For special purposes, a writers’ word can be anything from firkin to floccinaucinihilipilification. But to earn a place in the working vocabulary, the word should meet at least one of these criteria:

     Precise: e.g., tor (hilltop rock heap)
     Concise: mulct (defraud, as of money)
     Euphonious: fanfaronade (bluster)
     Onomatopoetic: williwaw (violent squall)
     Forceful: fulgent (dazzlingly bright)
     Evocative: mojo (charmed object)
     Fun: cachinnate ( laugh immoderately)
     Fresh: nimiety (an abundance, instead of stale plethora).
    What if a word is likely to be outside the reader’s active or half-known vocabulary? Then even undefined it should lend some special aura, some majesty or exoticism, to the context. Perhaps the unknown word reveals itself by sound or placement—“steam purled up from the pavement” (flowed in curls)—or begs to be looked up, like scumble (to soften brilliant color). In my grapefruit parable [at the beginning of this chapter] I planted what seemed to be three such words: jessant (shooting upward), virescent (tending toward green), and attar (a perfume obtained from flowers). Did they add a certain flavor, or merely squirt in your eye?

  8. Mr. Plotkin – I am surprised (happily) that you read my post. I found your book to be entertaining and educational. What you say is true about the “big words” in Franzen’s novels, the meaning, while it may be not exactly known, is implied because of the sentence in which it appears; So, while it may be an unfamiliar word, the reader gets it. Franzen’s novels are so complex as to encourage a second reading and since I had just read your book, I decided to note those words I was unsure of and look them up. And then blog about it, of course. Thank you so much for your comment.

  9. Whoo, Lynn, heady company indeed! Nice going!!

    I knew most of the words, but I am Canadian educated, which means I grew up reading many English books (as in written by UK writers).

    I made the mistake of ‘dumbing down’ my book a touch after my dd said, Mom, you’re not going to use big words in there are you? and I said, I never use big words. But I must admit her words stayed with me. S’okay, I made lots of writing mistakes I see now. Which, God willing, will make me a better writer…

    • Sharon, yes pretty cool. That’s two authors now, whose books I’ve talked about, have commented on the posts, so maybe the search engines are being kind to me?

      As a newbie writer we tend to take advice from everyone and what we should do is what we feel is right. Just be pourselves.

  10. That was fun. I remember looking up pullulating once–even wrote it down. But I still didn’t remember it. I haven’t read Corrections; guess I should.

    • Now I’m rereading his latest novel, Freedom. You should see the list I have for that! I recommend Franzen, everyone probably knows that since I talk about him all the time. Some people love him, others despise him. That’s always interesting to me.

  11. Pingback: 4 Blog Updates, 1 Household Hint and A Song | Lynn Schneider Books

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