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persiflage

September 23, 2017

Yesterday I was doing the Times crossword and came upon the following clue: “Banter in itself contains one warning signal (10)”. After a certain amount of head-scratching and tea-drinking I got the solution: persiflage (because ‘persiflage’ means ‘banter’, and is obtained by taking the phrase for “in itself” – per se – and wrapping it around the phrase for “one warning signal” – i flag).

Anyway I got to thinking about the word persiflage and I realised this was the first time I’d encountered it outside the works of PG Wodehouse. No other writer, to my knowledge, uses it. Only PG Wodehouse – and he uses it quite a lot.

Are there any other examples of words associated with one particular writer? I don’t think anyone except DH Lawrence ever used the word lambent, for example.

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5 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Leaving James Joyce and Anthony Burgess aside Will Self uses some very obscure words. Stephen Donaldson has used anile and carious which I don’t remember seeing anywhere else.

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    So sorry to do this but I have just recalled that T S Eliot uses ‘carious’ in The Waste Land; ‘Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit’. It is such a distinctive word, though, that the line, like so many of Eliot’s, sticks in the mind, even if you cannot understand what on earth he is actually talking about . Which, Eliot might say, is as good a definition of poetry as any.

    • No need to apologise for this! I can’t think of any other writer, except probably the author of a dentistry textbook, who has used this word. And I agree that Eliot’s line are memorable even if – especially if – one doesn’t quite know what they mean.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Yes, you’re right. Pound wanted to change carious to rotten in his edit but Eliott insisted on his first choice. Writers are often, not surprisingly, specific in their choice of words; there was an interview with Martin Amis in which he was insistent on using prentice rather than apprentice. A seemingly unimportant and almost unnoticeable difference but one which was crucial to him.

  4. Mark Brafield permalink

    I suspect that Eliot wanted to use ‘carious’, partly to jolt the reader by its obscurity, partly because the triplet rhythm of the word makes the line move more fleetly, but also to play on the contrast between the elegant sound of the word, (the music of its vowel being lighter than ‘rotten’, which is not only darker but merely obvious by comparison), and the horror of its meaning if and when it was realised. That shock and contrast is pure Eliot; my other favourites include ‘I have smelt incense in the latrine’ (Murder in the Cathedral) and ‘And let their liquid siftings fall’ To stain the stiff, dishonoured shroud’. (Sweeney among the Nightingales). I first read those lines as a sixth-former and still cannot get them out of my head.

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