21 Words From David Foster Wallace's Vocabulary List

Wikimedia Commons/Steve Rhodes
Wikimedia Commons/Steve Rhodes / Wikimedia Commons/Steve Rhodes

David Foster Wallace could make anything fascinating—professional tennis, talk radio, even MFA writing programs. His fast-paced, conversational style sucked readers in before they even noticed all the labor beneath the surface, all the precision, all the connections made between seemingly disparate ideas. The friction between that anxious effort and the joy of pinning down the intangible is what gives Foster Wallace’s prose its brilliance. He wanted to say it right, to find exactly the right word. So he was always on the lookout for new words, which he kept in a growing file on his computer. Here are a 21 items from that list, along with his own notes:

1. aerobe—organism requiring oxygen to live
2. afterclap—unexpected, often unpleasant sequel to a matter that had been considered closed
3. anaclisis—psychological dependence on others; “anaclitic”
4. apophasis—allusion to something by denying that it will be mentioned: "I will not bring up my opponent's shady financial history"
5. bistre—yellowish-brown color (unpleasant underwear)
6. catadromous—living in freshwater but migrating to sea to breed; could say of a guy who goes to Florida or CA to have debauches as a catadromous guy
7. ecotone—transitional zone between communities containing the characteristic species of each
8. euphuism—ornate, allusive, overpoetic prose style
9. gloze—minimize or underplay... "gloze" the embarrassing part
10. muntin—strip of wood or metal that separates & holds various panes in a window, like a window w/ four individual panes arranged in a big rectangle, etc. (that’s putting it well, Dave)
11. nidifugous—leaving the nest shortly after hatching (slackers are not nidifugous)
12. ocherous—moderate orange yellow...e.g., early sunset
13. ordurous—dungish or shitty
14. patelliphobia—fear of bowls, cups, basins, and tubs
15. peritrichous—having a band of cilia around the mouth as certain protozoans: "a woman with a peritrichous mustache"
16. privity—secret, special knowledge between two or more people; (adj.) privitive
17. serrate—having or forming a row of sharp little teethy things
18. tarantism—disorder where you have uncontrollable need to dance
19. tardive (adj.)—having symptoms that develop slowly or appear long after inception; used of disease
20. tenesmus—urgent but ineffectual attempt to pee or shit
21. valetudinarian—sickly, weak, morbidly health-conscious person

You can find David Foster Wallace’s complete list of words in his essay collection Both Flesh and Not.