Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vocabulary Lesson from a Killer

I'm reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood about the 1959 murder of a Kansas family. If Capote's account is to be believed (And I'm not sayin' it is. It's a great yarn, but the whole thing has a pre-James-Frey-James-Frey quality to it.), one of the murderers, Perry Smith, fancied himself a would-be intellectual and grammar stickler.

Capote reported that one of Smith's notebooks was a "personal dictionary" of words Smith believed "beautiful" or "useful" or at least "worth memorizing."

Examples are given in red with Smith's definitions, followed by present-day dictionary definitions:

"thanatoid = deathlike"

Neither Webster's New World nor American Heritage has this, but American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary (via does: "1. resembling death. 2. mortal; deadly."

"omnilingual = versed in languages"

Not listed in WNW, AH or But "omni" is a prefix and thus can be used to assemble words not listed in dictionaries. Of course, "omni" means "all" or "everywhere," according to WNW. So Smith's definition was imprecise.

"amerce = punishment, amount fixed by court"

American Heritage defines it: "to punish by a fine imposed arbitrarily at the discretion of the court."

"nescient = ignorance"

AH says it's "nescience" that means "ignorance."

"facinorous = atrociously wicked"

Neither WNW nor AH has this. Interestingly, retrieves a definition from a source I've never seen there before. (If you're unfamiliar, retrieves stuff from its own dictionary as well as from other sources.) For this word, cites Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary to say the word means "atrociously wicked."

"hagiophobia = a morbid fear of holy places and things"

WNW, AH, not found

"lapidicolous = living under stones, as certain blind beetles"

WNW, AH, not found. Having once done a feature article on "lapidary" (work with gems/precious stones), I was curious about this one. So I pulled out my 1933 Oxford Universal Dictionary. Still didn't find "lapidicolous," but found another notable word: "lapidate. To throw stones at; also, to stone to death."

"dyspathy = lack of sympathy"

WNW, AH: not found. "antipathy"

There are more, but I want to get back to my book.

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Janet S. said...

For multi-dictionary search, I really like It includes technical and specialized dictionaries and glossaries, and categorizes their results.

June Casagrande said...

Thanks for the heads-up. I'll check it out.


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