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David Foster Wallace's Dictionary Words

Last month, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin announced that it had acquired a dictionary owned by David Foster Wallace, as part of its extensive Wallace archive. Wallace's copy of the American Heritage Dictionary was full of words that the late writer had circled. The Ransom Center released a sampling of Wallace's circled words, but now Slate's Browbeat blog has revealed the complete list. It's a fascinating collection.

You can peruse 360 of Wallace's lexical delights in this word list we've compiled. Here's a selection:

  • aphagia: loss of the ability to swallow
  • bialy: flat crusty-bottomed onion roll
  • chthonic: dwelling beneath the surface of the earth
  • durbar: the room in the palace of a native prince of India in which audiences and receptions occur
  • esurient: extremely hungry; ardently or excessively desirous
  • flagitious: extremely wicked, deeply criminal
  • gallimaufry: a motley assortment of things
  • hypnagogic: sleep inducing
  • inanition: weakness characterized by a lack of vitality or energy
  • kohl: a cosmetic preparation used by women in Egypt and Arabia to darken the edges of their eyelids
  • litotes: understatement for rhetorical effect (especially when expressing an affirmative by negating its contrary)
  • mazurka: a Polish national dance in triple time
  • nacelle: a streamlined enclosure for an aircraft engine
  • omasum: the third compartment of the stomach of a ruminant
  • plethoric: excessively abundant
  • pons asinorum: a problem that severely tests the ability of an inexperienced person
  • quondam: belonging to some prior time
  • rogation: a solemn supplication ceremony prescribed by the church
  • scholium: a marginal note written by a scholiast (a commentator on ancient or classical literature)
  • tercel: male hawk especially male peregrine or gyrfalcon
  • uxorious: foolishly fond of or submissive to your wife
  • volant: with wings extended in a flying position

On the Browbeat blog, Juliet Lapidos ponders whether it's possible to detect any patterns in this eclectic list:

DFW admirers: Take a look at the list, then let us know if you gain new insight into the late author's work. Do you have a theory as to what led DFW to circle a word? Do you remember seeing any of these words in DFW's essays, journalism, and novels?

If you have any thoughts about Wallace's plethoric gallimaufry, share them in the comments below!


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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 15th 2010, 9:34 AM
Comment by: Scott (Tampa, FL)
The words David Foster Wallace used is interesting. What Mr. Wallace did with these words is fascinating.
Thursday April 15th 2010, 11:11 PM
Comment by: Hae Jung C. (Los Angeles, CA)
I am reading an English translation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and stumbled upon the word "gallimaufry" in it. I wonder what the equivalent of "gallimaufry" is in Swedish?
Friday April 16th 2010, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Many of the words are obscure, many are euphonic, and many probably appealed to DFW because they had the potential to fill a semantic niche in his writing. But I suspect that the only thing that connects them all is that he circled them in his dictionary.
Saturday April 17th 2010, 2:18 PM
Comment by: Scott (Tampa, FL)
Oops. I meant to say "The words David Foster Wallace used are interesting.", not "is".
Tuesday April 20th 2010, 10:27 AM
Comment by: Emily O. (Oakland, CA)
The cultural context you grew up in, your sex, and your hobbies will make some of these words very familiar--others not so much. I find this collection an odd mixture.... If you didn't grow up eating bagels and bialys in NY with your Russian relatives, or applying kohl to your eyelids when it was the fashion (still is) in the 70s and 80s, learning Chopin mazurkas on the piano as a child, or reading bird books for entertainment in between birding trips, then some of these would seem exotic.

I agree that he was probably looking for words that had "sound appeal", and to shake the cobwebs off some words that don't get used enough, but it is possible that some of them were unfamiliar at one time to him and he wanted to add them to his vocabulary. If his books and articles are eventually all scanned into Google Books, would it not be possible at some point to find if/where they have been used in his text?

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