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David Foster Wallace

Infinite vocabulary: the language of David Foster Wallace

Though the late David Foster Wallace was an internationally renowned author of fiction and non-fiction, many of his readers and even some of his most ardent fans may not know about Wallace’s love of language and the work he contributed to the modern American English lexicon. Wallace could take even the most unassuming or simple topic and turn it into something mind-blowing and entertaining, and the English language is no exception. Wallace not only wrote about language and usage, he brought strange and unknown words out of obscurity and even helped invent a few of his own.

David Foster Wallace and language use

In between his work as a professor and his contributions to literature, David Foster Wallace found the time to contribute to The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, and a sample of some of his entertaining word notes from the thesaurus can be found online (the full list of word notes can be found in Both Flesh and Not, a collection of Wallace’s essays). Though one might not expect to find creative writing in a thesaurus, Wallace’s notes on language and usage allow a unique glimpse into his personality and style. On the seemingly simple word critique he writes:

I went to college in the mid-1980s, and there I got taught that there’s no such verb as to critique. The professors (both around 50) who hammered this into me explained that to criticize meant ‘to judge the merits and defects of, to analyze, to evaluate’ and that critique (n.) was simply ‘a specific critical commentary or review.’ Twenty years later, though, dictionaries’ primary definition of to criticize is usually ‘to find fault with.’ Even for educated readers, the verb is apt to have negative connotations that it didn’t in 1985. This is why some usage authorities now consider to critique to be OK; they argue that it can minimize confusion by denoting the neutral, scholarly-type assessment that used to be what to criticize meant. Here’s the thing, though—it’s still only some usage experts who accept to critique. Dictionaries’ usage panels are usually now split about 50-50 on sentences like After a run-through, the playwright and director both critiqued the actor’s delivery. And it’s not just authorities: a decent percentage of American readers, especially those educated before 1990, still find to critique either incorrect or annoying. Why alienate these readers if you don’t have to? If you’re worried that criticize will seem too deprecatory, you can say evaluate, explicate, analyze, judge … or you can always use the old bury-the-main-verb trick and do offer a critique of, submit a critique of, etc.

Fans of Wallace and linguistic studies are encouraged to check out Wallace’s essay “Authority and American Usage,” a review of Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern Usage which examines the current state of dictionary writing and the issue of descriptivism vs. prescriptivism.

Infinite Vocabulary

David Foster Wallace, intentionally or not, has served as a great introduction for readers into the world of language studies. His essays on language as well as his fiction work have helped inspire a new generation of readers to expand their own vocabulary and knowledge of the inner workings of the English language. Sites like A Linguistic Bestiary of David Foster Wallace and Words I Learned From Reading David Foster Wallace are dedicated to cataloguing all the strange and unfamiliar words that readers find in Wallace’s work, and they never seem to run out of new words to investigate.

Wallace’s writing is cited in almost eighty entries in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which use quotations from his novels, short fiction, and elsewhere. Given his love of esoteric vocabulary, it is not surprising to see David Foster Wallace’s writing cited for words like palpebral (defined in the OED as “relating to the eyelids”), oneiromancy (“the interpretation of dreams to foretell the future”), and presbyopic (“long-sightedness caused by loss of elasticity of the lens of the eye”). However, his writing is also used in entries for words as common as apple, dream, and camera, demonstrating the wide variety of writing and breadth of vocabulary that Wallace used during his career:

DFW quotations

Wallace’s contributions and love of language do not stop at his work with The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. In his seminal work Infinite Jest, as well as in his unfinished novel The Pale King and many of his short stories, Wallace used so many unusual words that most readers might find it useful to have a dictionary handy. Even then they would find that some of the words Wallace used were not listed in many smaller dictionaries. When a simpler word or words wouldn’t express his intent, Wallace would find something much more unusual to use instead. A lady is described as prognathous rather than as “having a protruding jaw;” a Tourette’s sufferer shouts not obscenities but coprolalia; a dictating assistant is not merely a copy writer but an amanuensis, and a character leaves not scraps at a table after a meal but orts.

Wallace plucked these and hundreds of other words from the more unexplored corners of the English language; to describe a bike path he used the word pedalferrous, which apparently means “of or pertaining to foot metal”; he speaks of certain articles of clothing as androsartorial, which refers to men’s fashion, and instead of simply referring to a character’s jaw Wallace refers to their gonion, which means “a point on each side of the lower jaw at the mandibular angle”.

Mother knows best

It would be remiss to discuss David Foster Wallace and language without mentioning the words that Wallace himself conceived and introduced to the public; or, more accurately, the words his mother conceived. Sally Wallace, a distinguished English professor all her own, made up words or phrases for David and his sister when there were none in the English language to describe what she was thinking. These words never left Wallace and he included them in Infinite Jest and The Pale King, delighting and confusing readers in equal measure. Among the most well-known of these is the phrase the howling fantods, which refers to an intense feeling of fear of or repulsion for something. This is an extension of the original meaning of fantods as “a state of uneasiness or unreasonableness”. While Wallace did not coin the phrase entirely, as the term fantods already had a similar meaning, Wallace took the word and made it his own; indeed, the phrase “the howling fantods” is perhaps the closest thing Wallace has to a catchphrase.

Ironically, Wallace often used this phrase to describe members of the main characters’ family in Infinite Jest: one of the members of the fictional “Incandenza” family featured in the novel refuses to go to parts of the Boston Metro infested with bugs because roaches “give him the howling fantods”. Another such word used by the Wallaces was greebles, meaning little pieces of lint or tissue. For example, in Wallace’s unfinished final novel The Pale King, one character tries to use toilet paper to try to dry an outbreak of sweat  “without the toilet paper disintegrating into little greebles and blobs all over his forehead”. While these words and phrases are difficult to find used beyond the context of Wallace’s works and life, their popularity and usage among fans of Wallace is a testament to his (and his mother’s!) passionate love for language.


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