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Look at the size of my vocabulary!

In his earliest work Victor Canning had a bad habit of showing off the size of his vocabulary two or three times in each book by popping in without explanation an obscure word which most readers would be unlikely to know. Here are a few examples.

acedia (The Viaduct)
laziness, torpor
corticated (Fountain Inn)
disembogued (Polycarp's Progress)
poured forth
fugacious (Mercy Lane)
brief, fleeting
fulvous (Atlantic Company)
reddish yellow or brown (here applied to 'teeth')
fylfot, gammadion (Atlantic Company)
alternative words for swastika
geloscopy (Polycarp's Progress)
fortune-telling through laughter
gibbous (Fly away Paul)
rounded, protuberant
herissoned (Panthers' Moon)
spiky, hedgehog-like (applied to shadows)
ichor (Birdcage)
blood, especially blood of the Gods. "Power was the true ichor demanded by his vanity."
nodose (Fly away Paul)
pancratium (Matthew Silverman)
combination of wrestling and boxing
pandiculated (Polycarp's Progress)
spread out
polygenous (Fly away Paul)
saprophytes (Every Creature of God is Good)
organisms living on decaying matter, applied to the membership of the Sandover literary society
sciolistic (Polycarp's Progress)
having just a smattering of knowledge
tergiversation (Fly away Paul)
turning one's back on something, betrayal, denial
tortile (Polycarp's Progress)
coiled, twisted (applied to giggling humour)
transpontine (The Viaduct)
(of a play) melodramatic, sensational (from the typical repertoire of southern or "Surrey-side" theatres in London)
turgent (Atlantic Company)
swollen, becoming turgid (applied to a bruise)

He gave this up almost completely in his post-war books, and is quoted in a newspaper interview from 1974 as saying: "The greatest change from the early days of my writing is that I have become less and less prolix. I used to think that the greater the vocabulary, the greater the writer. That’s a hollow sham. I can’t bear pretentiousness in any form, or writing that is vanity and self-indulgence."

Canning also makes rather pleasant fun of his own practice in Matthew Silverman when the bad-tempered editor says to the junior reporter who has delivered a story late: "I suppose you’ll have the teleological impudence to ascribe the origin of your plight to Adam and Eve" Then, a little later, the editor worries "that perhaps he had used teleological, taken from a sententious Times leader that morning, incorrectly." (page 19) The word actually means relating to a goal or cause, and the term teleological argument is usually applied to the argument for the existence of God from the evidence of design in Nature.

I found the word "sciolism" in John Buchan's The Island of Sheep (p. 132 of the first edition, 1936), which suggests that Canning was setting a trend. He would have been greatly tickled to think that John Buchan was copying him.

A modern counterpart is highlighted in the comment made by Angus Stevenson, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of English, on the ostentatious vocabulary of Will Self. "You think he just sits there looking words up and chuckling to himself, thinking 'They'll never know this one.' " (See The Times, Saturday 7 August 2010.)

John Higgins, London, June 2021, updated Chiang Mai, June 2024