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More Pretentious Terms of the Slate Podcast Literati: September 11, 2009

Latest pretentious terms from today’s Slate Political Gabfest (feel free to email me suggestions or leave them in the comments to the main page):

  • risible [Dickerson, pronounced oh-so-correctly]

In this week’s Culture Gabfest, about 3 French words were used, some more than once IIRC, and pronounced oh-so-correctly, such as “oeuvre,” “milieu,” and maybe another that I’ve forgotten.

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • cb September 11, 2009, 4:18 pm

    I think you’re just angry because you have to live in Houston. What an armpit.

    • Stephan Kinsella September 11, 2009, 5:00 pm

      CB: Houston is indeed ugly: a big, flat, hot, concrete city. It’s a terrible place to visit, but good to live and work. And it’s very cosmopolitan–I love the mixture of cultures here–roughly equal Asian, black, white, Hispanic, with tons of other stripes, and everyone gets along and celebrates each others’ cultures (or lets the do it in peace); and, most professional people here are from somewhere else, so it’s very open to outsiders–no one here cares where you are from or whether you trace your ancestors to the Mayflower or Pinta. So it’s very friendly, service-oriented, individualist, and merit-based. No offense, latte-sipping yankees desperately clinging to their increasingly-irrelevant blue blood heritage.

      Besides, I think most people in the 21st Century would say it’s much more embarrassing to use an AOL email address than to live in Houston! 🙂

  • Mark Stone September 11, 2009, 4:43 pm

    Oeuvre & milieu are in my Macquarie English Dictionary, the national dictionary of Australia.
    So rather than having forgotten any, I’d say you’ve invented a couple.

  • twv September 12, 2009, 3:39 pm

    I don’t see “risible” as pretentious. I judge it a better term than its synonym, “laughable,” because it connotes — from its affinity with “derisive” — derision. So, if you want to put something down, “risible” works FAR FAR better than “laughable.” It has teeth. It hurts.

    Stephan, it’s time to read Mencken. He used words like this. So should we all.

  • Stephan Kinsella September 12, 2009, 7:07 pm


    Maybe “pretentious” is the wrong label. But I’m not sure what the right one is for my list. It’s a subjective list I’ll grant you. And let me be clear–I know almost all these terms already. But let me ask you this. Would you use “risible” if conversing with, say, a grandma, or your mom, or a cousin, or some engineer at a cocktail party? Do you really think any of them have likely even heard this word before? If not, then would you use it? And would would you think of someone who did–? That they were smart enough to know the word but too stupid to know that it’s not well known? Or that they were bores? Or what?

    I know that if I were to ever use the word “risible” in ordinary conversation with… well just about anyone I know in ordinary life–just about everyone except, say, the people at intellectual gatherings like the Mises Institute (and even there I bet you 1/4 of a given audience, at best, knows that word)–would ridicule me or be a bit irritated at me for using such a word, or think I’m some kind of fop or show-off or trying to make them look stupid by using word that both I know that they do not know.

    My view is that if you know the language very well you know when to use or not use a word. An amateur knows the word but uses it left and right b/c he doens’t know the meta-aspects of the word. Or maybe they only associate with the arts and croissant types who live in crowded cities and don’t own cars or houses and have no kids and whose friends all work at The New Yorker. And they are just clueless about the real world out there?

    Now audience matters. I might use a different term in an intellectual setting, or giving a speech–even if I thought they might not know the word, it’s in such settings we can impart new knowledge to people.

    But take the Culture and Political Gabfest podcasts from Slate. Is their audience *only* that 2% of the populace who knows the word “risible”… or is it broader than that? I would be willing to bet that less than 25% of the Slate podcast listeners know “risible”. Maybe I’m too cynical. What would you say? And if htat is true, what does that imply about what types of words people should use?

    One more thought–it seems to me there is a difference in writing and speaking. If I read Mencken I can see the unfamiliar words clearly; and take time to look them up if I want. In a speech, where you have an audience, it’s in real time.

    Anyway–you have to admit that in shows like this, sometimes it’s obvious when the host is straining to find a fancy, literati type term.

  • Jayel Aheram September 13, 2009, 6:02 pm

    On one hand, the purpose of language is to get your point across and using obscure words in a normal conversation is a bit self-defeating. On the other hand, why contribute to the decline of the language by not using obscure, yet precise words?

  • t wirkman v September 15, 2009, 10:30 pm

    After LIFE OF BRIAN, is “risible” truly an uncommon word?

    It is interesting, though, that the effort to simplify one’s language is to be some sort of duty, but the effort to gain a better and more precise vocabulary is not. Everyman, thereby, becomes a tyrant, to whom we who have much-ramified vocabularies are supposed to bow, in intellectual martyrdom.

    This is reminiscent of my upbringing. I got this rap from my pastor, when I was a “Bible-believing Christian,” complete with quotations from the Apostle Paul. The weaker brethren, dontcha know, must be protected and coddled. They can handle only the “milk of the Word,” not “the meat.” And so, to protect their weak stomachs and minds, the metaphoric milk is all they are ever given. Under no circumstance must we offend weaker brethren with, say, a stark truth.

    Now, it is true, post-Christian, I treat the Christians themselves (generally) as weaker brethren, and do not foist into their faces the harsh doctrines of evolution and the problem of evil. But there must be a time and a place to allow me to serve red meat, and I will occasionally nudge Christians with slight little morsels of adult fare.

    And just so regarding people with small vocabularies, and small appetites for the same. I generally do not use big words with them. But I do let the less common ones jump out, every now and then. Sometimes even to their delight. I made a joke using the word “fungible” a few weeks ago. Most of my family in attendance did not get it, but then we had much laughter about what a fun word “fungible” was, and how useful it is when talking about money, if not genitalia.

    “Risible,” said Pontius Pilate (hands awash), could be one of those words to drop in common conversation. Preferably without a lisp . . . or a “w” sound. But with my best friends, it is a word I’ll use regularly. So are “semiotic” and “praxeology” and “pragmatic” and “velleity” and “noisome” and many another.

    If this be pretentious, I’ll have to live with that. I just see no reason to be cut down by the ignorant, and limited by lax standards of the uneducated.

    Further, I expect an occasional explanation from my friends, and corrections, when I misuse a word, or grammar. How are we to learn if we do not continue to accept such instruction, sometimes correction, even unto old age?

    I was talking with my neighbor , a well-known lepidopterist, the other day. He introduced me to somebody, and used the phrase “much-ramified” (see above) to describe my own learning. I was flabbergasted. Mainly, though, I was puzzled at the word. I had never heard “ramify” used in that manner. And I was delighted. What a great usage! We hear only “ramification” used these days, and that only in its loosest sense. I had just discovered a basic word in its most apt usage! I learned something.

    My delight at learning from someone who used an uncommon, allegedly “pretentious” word is, I think, the correct attitude. The censorious one strikes me as perilously close to [insert favorite pejorative term for “anti-intellectual” here].

  • Stephan Kinsella September 15, 2009, 10:40 pm

    Wirkman, I like it! You had me at lepidopterist.

    🙂 Seriously, we approach this similarly, then. I do similar things as you do with my friends etc., and I enjoy learning new turns of phrase. And I enjoy picking out words used in podcasts that (a) I find the host is trying a bit too unnaturally to use; and (b) I suspect are unknown by a large swath of the audience.

  • Jonah April 19, 2014, 3:59 pm

    Will you please update the strike-throughs on the “expect to hear” list for those words that have been used since you first compiled the list?! Also consider adding the following words:

    1. contretemps
    2. admixture
    3. papoose

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