While I was researching for my previous post, I stumbled across an extraordinary book titled Frontier Experience or Epistolary Sesquipedalian Lexiphanicism from the Occident, by J.E.L. Seneker. The first paragraph gives a taste of its style:
Most Sophomorical Sir:–
Your Græco-Latin epistolet or cabalistical abracabra, lies before me, deciphered and eclaircised to the best of my linguistic, pasigraphical, and exegetical ability. As merited castigation therefor, and to test your wonted longanimity, I shall recalictrate by effunding upon you, in epistolic form, my scaturient cornucopia of lexiphanic sesquipedalities, Johnsonian archaisms, exoticisms, neologianisms, patavinities, et id genus omne.
A little is explained in the front matter to the book. In the Prefatory Remarks by the Author, he states that after some study, he spent:
several years in the far west, Mexico, California, British Columbia, Alaska, Ontario, &c., &c. These fustian letters, a few copies of which I have, at the request of many of my friends, printed, give, to a limited extent, that part of my varied experience in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico:– at that time wild west frontiers … I have greatly amplified the original text, and incorporated many lexiphanic words.
In other words, as I understand it, he wrote the letters as a young man, and published them in an expanded form later.
The timeline is confused by a Review dated 1890 — how could someone review a book published in 1906, in 1890?
The most authoritative information is in an article on the Alumni Review website of the University of Rochester, New York. In 2008, Seneker’s first cousin, five times removed Tom Stone prepared a ‘102nd anniversary edition’, which is the version I’ve linked to above. He wrote a preface, which probably explains more, but which is omitted by Google Books.
Stone explains that the book was:
something of a family treasure … the deliberately obnoxious, sometimes baffling, and completely frustrating choices of words make it a one-of-a-kind work.
Seneker was born in 1848 and wrote these letters in 1872 (possibly the first year of his “several years” travel). He was later a school teacher and superintendent in Tennessee.
Most of the words are real, some are common enough to be recognised by the spell-check on Pages for Mac (deciphered, linguistic, exegetical, merited, castigation, therefor, wonted, cornucopia, archaisms, exoticisms) but many not (sophomorical, Græco-Latin (though it does accept Greco-Latin), epistolet, cabalistical, abracabra, eclaircised, pasigraphical, longanimity, recalictrate, effunding, epistolic (I’m a bit surprised that this is on the list), scaturient, lexiphanic, sesquipedalities, Johnsonian, neologianisms, patavinities). But some (possibly of those) are neologisms, possibly neologianisms.
Even without the glossary which Seneker provided on each opposite page, it would be possible to discern or at least guess the meanings of some or even most of these words by some knowledge of Latin and/or Greek (and just occasionally Hebrew (cabalistical)), and/or from context: an epistolet is obviously a small letter, cabalistical is obviously a variation of cabalistic and abracabra is obviously related to abracadabra.
Here’s the first paragraph again, with Seneker’s glossaried words interpolated:
Most Sophomorical [second year at college] Sir:–
Your Græco-Latin epistolet or cabalistical [mystical] abracabra [meaningless something], lies before me, deciphered and eclaircised [meaning found] to the best of my linguistic [language knowledge], pasigraphical [writing understood by all], and exegetical [explanatory] ability. As merited castigation [punishment] therefor, and to test your wonted longanimity [patience], I shall recalictrate [kick back] by effunding [pouring out] upon you, in epistolic [letter] form, my scaturient [overflowing full] cornucopia [horn of plenty] of lexiphanic [pretentious words] sesquipedalities [long words], Johsonian archaisms [words out of date], exoticisms [foreign], neologianisms [newly coined], patavinities [local words], et id genus omne [and all that sort of thing].
As to evident exaggerations, the reader may decide. There are a few obsolete words, and now and then, a word is used, inadvertently, not exactly in the right connection, yet, the language is certainly English.
Stone notes that producing the new edition challenged Microsoft Word:
Once he had transcribed the book into Word, so many words were tagged as unrecognizable that the program stopped its telltale error sign—the red underline—and sent him a single error message.
And also that the book:
shows, above all else, how much language changes, and how few of its available words we ultimately use.
In this regard, Seneker writes:
There are about 225,000 words in the English language, but only a few thousand are used by most people. … No one can truly claim to have liberal English education, and be ignorant of the meaning of the majority of the words in this book.
But if I am communicating cooperatively, I will use words which my listeners/readers will know. In this blog, I can be more expansive, but some of my days are entirely spent talking with learners or speakers of English as a second language.
The statement “language changes” applies more to vocabulary than to grammar. English grammar has changed little in about 1500 years, and the bare bones of the first paragraph is:
Your thing lies before me, done-to to the best of my ability. For some reason, and to test you, I shall do something to you.
I also discovered a Twitter account and Facebook page bearing this name, which are simply the book delivered in Twitter-sized and Facebook-sized portions (maybe posted by Stone). I’d love to see someone deliver commentary on current events in this style.