by Kim Pederson…….

I need to write a historical novel (an historical? — I can never decide which). Where else can you have great fun (and get away with) using archaic words that left the glossarial building (mostly) a long time agone. Upon running into such words in print somewhere, most people just “walk on by.” A few reading their Kindles might fingerpop the dictionary to learn what it means, but in general the term remains lost and lonely somewhere in the obfuscatory clouds, the veritable woody-perennial-shaped collection of morphemes falling (or not falling) in the forest, forever unhearkened. Today’s case in point: obnubilate.

Damn shame, that's what I say!*
Damn shame, that’s what I say!*

I only know this word because it came to my email box as the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. According to that same source, it means, variously, 1) to cover or obscure by or as if by clouds, 2) to make cloudy of mind, or 3) to induce torpor in. The World Wide Words site has a much more opinionated view of it:

This is as high-flown a Latinate word as the clouds it figuratively evokes (it comes from nubes, a cloud). It means to darken, dim, cloud over, or obscure. It’s not a word to be wasted on everyday conversation, but on its rare outings seems to be the special province of the more ponderous political speeches and newspaper editorials.

And then it offers this example from Neal Stephenson’s novel Quicksilver, which is set in the seventeenth century:

“This was a wonder all by itself, with its ropewalks — skinny buildings a third of a mile long — windmills grinding lead and boring gun-barrels, a steam-house, perpetually obnubilated, for bending wood, dozens of smoking and clanging smithys including two mighty ones where anchors were made…”

Now you may glean from whence my sudden jones to write a (an) historical work of fiction comes. Never fear, obnubilate. I’m coming to rescue you (or maybe I already have).

You may be thinking why bother with such words. Our minds are already cluttered enough trying to keep apace with the shifting argotory sands of words like “lit” and “trash” and “cancelled” and “savage” that we thought we knew the meaning of or that “on fleek” is no longer de regueur. Even in the face of the overwhelming evidence that the last thing we need is more words, I keep thinking of the second meaning of today’s term and cannot resist adding yet more words to the lexicoether. My new words would be the noun “obnubilatorian” and the infinitive “to obnubilate.” The latter would be conjugated in the present tenses as “he obnubilates,” “he is obnubilating,” “he has obnubilated,” and “he has been obnubilating.” And by “he,” I think you cognize of whom I declaim.

* Lexicographer Samuel Johnson. By Joshua Reynolds – Tate Gallery (US-PD).


Visit Kim Pederson’s blog RatBlurt: Mostly Random Short-Attention-Span Musings.

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