I have the old English major’s habit of never reading past a word I don’t know, and have worn out more than a few pocket dictionaries. There are certain kinds of books, generally high-toned novels, that you expect to give you a good lexical workout—Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, for example, which I read for the first time this year after watching the great HBO miniseries, or anything by William Faulkner.
Military history is not in this category. Accounts of battle have their own ways of confusing readers (troop movements and tactics, geographical fine points, jargon and acronyms), but they rarely display recondite vocabulary, which is why I was surprised by how many times Rick Atkinson, in his superb World War II Liberation Trilogy, stopped me cold.
Here are some of the puzzlers in The Guns at Last Light, the trilogy’s final volume: bedizened, biffing, cozenage, bootless, jinking, maledictory, spavined, tintinnabulation, anabasis, flinders. Some in that list may be more familiar than others, but speaking as someone who has been reading and writing for four decades, if a word stops me, it’s going to stop most people.
Google Books’ Ngram Viewer, which charts how frequently a word or phrase appears in a sample of roughly 5.2 million books and 500 billion words, confirms the obscurity of these specimens. An Ngram score shows what percentage of the sample’s word count a particular word or phrase represents over a particular period of time. Take gutful, which makes up .0000005 percent of Ngram’s English-language sample from 2008 (when Last Light was published), as opposed to brave, its equivalent, which has a score of .001. Gutful is used three times in Last Light (pages 53, 167, and 346), which means that the author thrice chose a word 2,000 times less common than its perfectly suitable synonym.