Bill Casselman

Surprise !

A surprising word and an answer

to a reader's question about,

what, precisely, constitutes

an "elitist use of English"

A Word Whose Very Existence

Astonished Me

Recently I was spooked, not to say bouleversé, when reading a right-wing rag of a Canadian newspaper, to observe the reporter, a local Cro-Magnon bigot, use the verb “to dullen.” Dismissively I thought, oh-oh, another semi-literate bozo unacquainted with the common fact that dull is both an adjective and a verb.

Yet so venerable a tome as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that to dullen has indeed been a verb in our language since 1832 CE when quotation evidence points to its being coined by writer Leigh Hunt, perhaps as a chiming antonym to the long-existing English verb to brighten.

Of course the basic adjective dull, with variant orthography, appears in Old English before 970 CE, from a Proto-Indo-European root whose reflex in Modern German is toll which nowadays has both positive and negative meanings like ‘wild, mad, crazy’ but in much earlier German could signify ‘foolish, like a dullard, stupid, not sharp.’

Now, class, let us employ our new verb in an illustrative sentence: Donald Trump dullened the intellectual level of candidates for the American presidency.

Elitist Words a No-No?
To introduce the conclusion of this column we may look to its first sentence and my elitist use of a French past participle bouleversé which means ‘shocked, knocked on my ass, overwhelmed, upset, overturned.’ It’s from a French verb with Latin roots: Latin bulla ‘ball’ + Latin versare ‘to turn,’ its prime semantic being ‘to turn over and over the way a rolling ball turns.’

Now I beg a picayune space to reply to an email complaint that I use far too many elitist words in my writing. Oh! My most fervid expectancy is that such a wanton indictment may teem with prejudicial surplusage!

The late Australian art critic, Robert Hughes ─ by my lights one of the best art critics who ever wrote in English ─ was labelled by fellow Australian journalists as “an elitist” - granted a given that Australian males (all named Bruce) comprise an archaic subspecies of humanity best left to themselves squeezing tits and popping a shrimp on the "barby."

Answering the flimsy charge of the Aussie galoots, Hughes wrote: “I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails, or someone tying a Bimini hitch that won’t slip.”

Hughes’ is a quotable statement because it calls attention to the neglected divide between what is the good and what is the bad, between the artifact worth keeping and disposable schlock, the junk, the kitsch and the garbage choking modern life.

Hughes believed in talent, craft and skill, not welfare, not passing every moron in Grade Seven, not letting some defective brain-stem shoot a cop in the head just because said dunce has been “hard-done-by” or because the retard was deprived of licorice as a child.

Hughes did not agree that being able to read a soup can qualified a student to pass Grade 12 English. Hughes loved the thing well made, whether it was a perfect nautical knot, a great painting, or, like me, a superb sentence of English. Culture which endures needs more strict judges like Robert Hughes.

What, you may unwisely ask, is my own philosophy of column writing? In each column I try to select one word not merely rare, but a choice vocable that is in fact le mot recherché, a term uncommon to the point of pretentiousness. Email response reveals that readers of At the Wording Desk seek an expansion of vocabulary. So, mes enfants, why else am I here, if not to foist upon innocent readers the most obscure word-mosses scraped from oblivion’s grotto?

Bill Casselman copyright 2016

September 1, 2016

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