October 02, 2005

Avoiding the obvious

Though I have a pretty extensive vocabulary, I occasionally come across an unfamiliar word, usually in technical contexts, but sometimes, mystifyingly, in more ordinary prose.  Here's a passage -- from Frederick Kaufman's "Debbie does salad" (on television food shows as porn), Harper's Magazine, October 2005, p. 59 --  that sent me to the dictionaries a few days ago:

The primeval brain of the involuntary, the abdominal brain, the brain that controls sympathy and revulsion but not ratiocination, that is the brain of the wow.
    When it comes to television, the theory becomes practice: Whether on the Hot Network, E! Entertainment Television, or CBS, the splanchnic response, not the lucubrations of the intellect but the primal gut reaction--that's what hauls in the ratings.

Wow, indeed: splanchnic.  I'm down with ratiocination and lucubrations (though I find these word choices annoyingly fancy), but splanchnic would have been a total zero out of context.  In this context it must mean 'of the gut, visceral', and the dictionaries confirm that it's a (Greek-derived) medical term with this meaning.  But why did Kaufman use it?  He can't really have expected many of his readers to be familiar with it.

Here's a guess.  First, he decided to refer to the gut twice, for emphasis.  (I would have counseled sticking to a single contrast to "the lucubrations of the intellect", or however this idea gets formulated, and then he never would have gotten into mining the far reaches of lexicography.)  One of these references can just be with gut: "the primal gut reaction" above.  To avoid mere repetition, the other one's going to have to be something fancier.  The obvious candidate is visceral, but (a) it is, well, obvious, almost clichéd, and (b) it could be read as (somewhat) metaphorical, rather than as a literal reference to the viscera (though gut has the very same problem).  So Kaufman hauls himself off to a thesaurus, or consults one of the experts on anatomy he interviewed, and unearths the shiny hundred-dollar word splanchnic.  (If he had the word to hand already, then he's been doing way too many Expand Your Word Power exercises.) Of course, for most readers it doesn't actually contribute anything to the sentence and just causes them to get hung up in the middle of it.  But it certainly does avoid the obvious.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 2, 2005 09:02 PM