David Foster Wallace Creates Lists of His Favorite Words: “Maugre,” “Tarantism,” “Ruck,” “Primapara” & More


Every­one I know has a list of least-favorite words. For var­i­ous rea­sons, “moist” always seems to make the top three. But per­haps it takes a writer—someone who savors the sounds, tex­tures, and his­to­ries of pecu­liar words—to com­pile a list of their most-favorites. A few I’ve placed in keep­sake box­es over the years—little cor­ru­gat­ed min­er­als that remind me of what words can do: “palaver,” “obdu­rate,” “crevasse,” “super­fe­cund”….

I could go on, but it’s cer­tain­ly not my list you’ve come for. You’re read­ing, I sus­pect, because you well know the con­sum­mate care and atten­tion David Fos­ter Wal­lace lav­ished on his prose—his rep­u­ta­tion as a smith of end­less cre­ativ­i­ty who, Alex Ross wrote in a series of McSweeney’s trib­utes, spent his time “keen­ly observ­ing, forg­ing acronyms, rean­i­mat­ing life­less OED entries, and cre­at­ing sen­tences that make us spit out our beer.”

Ross’s men­tion of the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary, that ven­er­a­ble repos­i­to­ry of the vast breadth and depth of writ­ten Eng­lish (sad­ly kept behind a pay­wall), helps us appre­ci­ate Wallace’s list, which fea­tures such archa­ic adverbs as “mau­gre” (“in spite of, notwith­stand­ing”) and obscure adjec­tives as “lacinate” (“fringed”). Who has read, much less writ­ten, the Anglo-Sax­on “ruck” (“a mul­ti­tude of peo­ple mixed togeth­er”)? And while the equal­ly rock-hard, mono­syl­lab­ic “wrack” is famil­iar, I have not before encoun­tered the love­ly “prima­para” (“woman who’s preg­nant for the first time”).


Anoth­er page of Wallace’s list (above—click images to enlarge) includes such trea­sures as “taran­tism,” a “dis­or­der where you have an uncon­trol­lable need to dance,” and “sci­olism,” a “pre­ten­tious air of schol­ar­ship; super­fi­cial knowl­edga­bil­i­ty.” While it is true that Wal­lace has been accused of the lat­ter, I do not think this is a com­pe­tent judg­ment. Instead, I would describe him with anoth­er of my favorite words—“amateur”—not at all, of course, in the sense of an unpaid or unskilled begin­ner, but rather, as it meant in French, a “devot­ed lover” of the Eng­lish lan­guage.

These pages come to us from Lists of Note (and the Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter at UT-Austin), who writes that they are “just two pages from the hun­dreds of word lists he amassed over the years.” Per­haps one day we’ll see a pub­lished edi­tion of David Fos­ter Wallace’s favorite words. For the nonce, head on over to Lists of Note to see this min­im of his lex­i­con tran­scribed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Love of Lan­guage Revealed by the Books in His Per­son­al Library

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Breaks Down Five Com­mon Word Usage Mis­takes in Eng­lish

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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