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Buckley reveled in the sound of words. If it came down to a choice between two words he'd pick the one more interesting to the ear.


Bill Buckley liked lively, muscular, useful words. Language was the internal engine of his intellect. With an astonishing range and deft elegance, he used only words that precisely fit what he wanted to say.

He defended his word choices as ‘rich’, not ‘strange,’ saying "We tend to believe that a word is unfamiliar because it is unfamiliar to us." He spent his life getting familiar with words that would convey his ideas most succinctly– and he delivered them with a twinkle and smile.

His word/thoughts were multidimensional. He mixed, matched, and played with forms as if they were tactile. Even when his words sounded a bit convoluted at the moment of utterance, they clearly conveyed his logic, intention, and meaning-- for he shaped and shaved each sentence in a neat, emphatic manner.

Often he’d toss in a foreignism– not for variety, but because it was his most exacting verbal solution (or weapon). His favorite was Latin, followed by French. He loved the lilting rhythms of Italian and Portuguese– but at times only the severity of a German would do-- (try Gemütlichkeit or Weltanschauung on for size.)

He wrote a regular column for the magazine he founded, National Review. When he wasn’t sailing his rig across oceans, playing his harpsichord, or out on the town with his wife Pat, he wrote more than 50 books, 14 of them novels. He wrote plays. His speaking calendar was full for more than half a century. For television audiences he is most remembered as host of "Firing Line," which aired from 1966 to 1999.

On "Firing Line" the audience got his extraordinary vocabulary in audio-visual splendor– clean articulation, dramatic facial expression, and inimitable body language. It was linguistic one-upmanship somewhere within the reaches of ballet and karate.

Devoted to literature and history, he was an impish name-dropper. Here are a few: Benthamite, Brobdingnagian (of a county in Jonathan Swift’s "Gulliver’s Travels."), Cartesian, Carthaginian, Carthusian (of monks– who didn’t pay taxes– in a religious order founded by St. Bruno in the 11th century), Catonically (Marcus Cato, 149 BC), Jacobinical, Luddite–as an adjective, Machiavellian, Nixonian, Procrusteanize (after mythical Greek giant who could stretch and shorten his captives to fit his need), Rabelaisian, Solomonic, Stakhanovic (after a Soviet miner), and Weltanschauug. Enough?

Although he spoke French, he used it only when it was "well-anglicized" and recognizable-- sticking to words and phrases such as aperçu, lèsè majesté, noblesse oblige, oeuvre, cordon sanitaire, démarche, élan, mille-feuilles, and dénouement.

Same with Latin. He rarely wandered away from America’s classic package, and avoided the obscurities of legal, medical, and scientific lingo. Here is some well-trod Buckley Latin: Pro bono publico, summun bonum, tabula rasa, ex cathedra, arbiter elegantiae, in medias res, ipso facto, mutatis mutandis, non grata, reductio ad absurdum, mirabile dictu, and sotto vocce.

As an inveterate ‘describer’ he always had a mouthful of adjectives. But sometimes he’d turn his ‘adjectivals’ on their heads and use them in a different form or borrow something new from blue sky. Sometimes he seemed incapable of letting a noun go solo– for there were just too many colorful embossments at the ready.

Adjectives: Some Buckley staples: Abstruse, anfractuous, atavistic, belletristic, catechetical, cognate, concupiscent, contumacious, cryptic, diaphanous, discursive, dramaturgical, dyspeptic, ecumenical, eleemosynary, endemic, epicene, epistemological, epochal, eremitical, eristic, eschatological, euphonious, Eurocentric, evanescent, execrable, extrinsic, fallacious, fissiparous, forensic, fungible, fustian, heuristic, idiomatic, implacable, inchoate, indefeasible, inimical, intercredal, invidious, involuted, irreducible, juridical, languorous, licentious, loquacious, manifold, mastodonic, meliorative, mimetic, miscible, monitory, mordant, nascent, nuanced, obstreperous, omnibus, ontological, orotund, parlous, pedagogical, perdurable, peremptory, perfidious, periphrastic, perspicacious, piquant, plutocratic, portentous, post-prandial, prehensile, primogenitive, prosaic, provincial, puerile, purposive, putative, quixotic, quotidian, recidivist, recondite, refractory, reifiable, renascent, restive, sacrosanct, salacious, salutary, sanguinary, sclerotic, sonorous, stentorian, stultifying, supernal, sycophantic, syntactical, talismanic, tendentious, trenchant, tripartite, truculent, uncongruous, vainglorious, varicose, vestigial, viscus, and voluptuarian.

Spell checking tools might send flags flying throughout his lexicon, but he was beyond that. He used words found in most abridged dictionaries– for the most part. And those exceptions– his uncanny and unexpected ‘sound prints’– were what kept audiences in thrall all those years.

For instance, the last adjective in the list above clearly went through the Buckley wringer. He didn’t want to say voluptuary (addicted to sensual pleasures)– that didn’t do it for him. So it was "voluptuarian." Not only did it sound better to his musical ear; it created an extra beat and definitively tweaked the word’s edge with a sharper sting toward whomever or whatever his reference.

Lights, camera, Action!

Journalists use verbs and if they were motors to add energy and speed up action. Buckley’s verbs, in his writings, could stop action momentarily while readers put on the brakes, backed up, and recouped their grasp of the author’s thinking. He took his verbs seriously and chose them for exactness of meaning. When speaking, his comfort with the vernacular kept his oratory flowing. He shunned the arcane, obsolete, and– at least in his mind– pretentious word.

Verbs: Here are some favorites: Abjure, adumbrate, agglutinate, attenuate, catechize, conduce, conflate, detumesce, emplace, eventuate, expiate, extirpate, flout, hector, impute, intuit, inveigh, kedge, lucubrate, mollify, obtrude, opine, polemicize, prescind, proffer, propitiate, pullulate, reinstitutionalize, remonstrate, subsume, taxonomize, traduce, and transubstantiate.

He wasn’t above fudging with inventions when he felt the need to "verbalize" a noun. There are a couple instances of this in the above list. Detumescence is a noun (subsiding or ceasing from swelling) which he converted to detumesce, because it was exactly the word he needed. Taxonomy is a noun (departmentalization or classification of things), as is ‘taxonomist’ and ‘taxonomer’ (the one that does the sorting and grouping). But he wanted the verb form, hence ‘taxonomize.’

And who are we to argue? His communication was precise. Since he used verbs with internal specificity he went easy on the adverbs– except when he really needed one, as a carpenter might reach for a chisel in a given situation. His adverbs were often doozies– as with ‘eschatologically’(way of dealing with the ultimate destiny of mankind and the world). After an adverb of seven syllables (or more) he’d pick a shorter verb. He had to catch a breath sometime.

Nouns: the high trees in the forest of language. They are the heavy-weights that draw all the action and description. Here are a few from Buckley's arsenal: Ablution, acumen, adulator, aegis, anathema, animus, apostasy, asperity, asserveration, avatar, canard, cavil, chimera, coadjutor, comity, cynosure, demurral, desideratum, detritus, detumescence, dialectic, disjunction, disquisition, duplicity, dysphasia, effulgence, ephemera, espousal, esoterica, evocation, exegete, expostulation, fealty, fulsomeness, gerrymander, gravitas, hagiography, hauteur, hegemony, heterodoxy, honorific, hubris, ignominy, incertitude, individuation, insouciance, insularity, invective, knell, lacuna, latitudinarianism, literati, maculation, malefactor, mien, miscreant, nabob, naif, nescience, nuance, oeuvre, onus, opprobrium, paean, palliative, paucity, pejorative, peregrination, perfidy, probity, provenance, putsch, quintessence, recision, rectitude, reification, ribaldry, rubric, schismatic, sciolism, shibboleth, sinologist, solipsist, somnambulist, sophistry, stricture, suasion, succubus, surcease, synecdoche, tautology, treacle, turpitude, ululation, usurpation, velleity, vitiate, vitriol, and xenophobia.

Buckley didn’t usually mess around with manipulating nouns; after all, there is a nearly inexhaustible inventory-- not counting names and places. From the list above there is only one word considered rare: asserveration (the act of preserving). But even with unusual words he would put them in a certain place– as particular as a set designer-- in order to be understood. With his knowledge of Latin and Greek he could translate sound into thought and thought into sound– on the spot.

The delight of reading or listening to Buckley was experiencing his own obvious joy with the gymnastic and musical use of language. He felt the shape of words in all their measure. Speaking, he clearly was enchanted with the kinetic creation of sounds produced by his palette, tongue, lips, teeth, vocal chords and diaphragm.

Since American English has by far the largest vocabulary of any other language– and unlimited ways to use it-- we’d all do well to dig in deeper and find the delights of our own.

return to "Listening for Words"

Remain curious.