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by William H. Benson

December 9, 2010

     In The Element’s of Style, the authors, William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, presented Rule Number 14: “Avoid fancy words. Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able. Anglo Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo Saxon words.”

     Ammon Shea, a columnist for the New York Times Magazine, offered similar advice: “Brandishing  unfamiliar words unnecessarily will mark you as a blowhard, not an effective communicator. You should apparently take care to sound smart, but not too smart.”

     The stylists often point to Winston Churchill, who, at the moment of England’s crisis, spoke of “blood, sweat, toil, and tears,” rather than vermeil, sudorification, moiling, and delacrimation.

     However, not every writer dutifully obeys those stylists who legislate the laws of prose. An excellent example is William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of the National Review. He repeatedly broke Rule Number 14, for he was the champion and defender of the unfamiliar English word.

     One critic complained that to read Buckley’s columns, a person was forced to refer repeatedly to a dictionary in order to understand his meaning, and so he called Buckley “a lexicographical snob.”

     The critic wrote, “First he gives us synecdoche, a figure of speech in which the whole is used for the part or the part for the whole. Then, adumbrated, to darken or conceal partly; to overshadow; this was followed by velleity, a mere wish with no effort to obtain it. From there he takes us to maieutic, the Socratic mode of inquiry, bringing out ideas latent in the mind. Then, on to provenance, the location of a beginning such as where a painting was painted or a book written. Finally, he unloads pasquinade on us, a publicly posted lampoon or satire or ridicule.”

     Buckley justified his style. “Have you noticed that the use of an unusual word sometimes irritates the reader to such a point that he will accuse the user of affectation, of which there is no more heinous crime in the American republic? I raise the problem because I am often accused of an inordinate reliance on unusual words. There is a sort of phony democratic bias against the use of unusual words.”

     “I said,” he continued, “that I have a private theory, a theory so simple, so rudimentary, that it almost embarrasses me to trot it out. But think it over. It is that we tend to believe that a word is unfamiliar because it is unfamiliar to us. Concede, of course, that there are words neither you nor I know. Should those words be quarantined?”

     In 1955, when he was just thirty, his father gave him $100,000, with which he started his magazine, the National Review, a politically conservative publication. Between 1962 and 2008 Buckley wrote some 5600 columns, plus he published more than 50 books, and in all those works, he refused to quarantine any word, regardless of its degree of familiarity. He paraded before his readers a string of words located well outside the boundaries of the common vocabulary of the American people.

      Buckley was easily recognizable with his arched eyebrows, an expansive and toothy FDR-like grin, and his wispy blonde hair. He was urbane, cordial, erudite, but above all else he was humorous, with a sparkling wit that manifested itself on his television show, Firing Line, that aired for over thirty years.

     Alistair Cooke once referred to Buckley as the “lover of the last word,” but Buckley admitted that on occasion he would leave the television studio “with much on my mind, en esprit d’escalier, a wonderful French term describing what you wish you had said by way of devastating retort: typically a sunburst that hits you as you reach the bottom of the staircase.” 

     And so Buckley broke another of Strunk and White’s rule’s, Number 20: Avoid foreign languages.

     He was the quintessential sesquipedalian, a user of long words, and he relied upon a pleonastic writing style, using more words than necessary to communicate meaning. It was his style of prose, he was most comfortable with it, it brought him much success, and he ignored Strunk and White’s rules.

     William F. Buckley, Jr. passed away on February 27, 2008 at the age of 82, while seated at his desk in his home in Stamford, Connecticut and when writing yet another column, and not avoiding “the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.”