Le mot juste

In the NYT Book Review on the 1st, Charles Finch on “‘Career of Evil,’ by J.K. Rowling Writing as Robert Galbraith”, where we find this:

What Rowling writes these days, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, are crime novels: the closest equivalent adults have to the apotropaic formula of childhood literature, parading the unimaginable in front of us and then solving it, stabilizing it.

Whoa, apotropaic! Now that’s an obscure word. Either Finch has in fact glossed it with “parading the unimaginable in front of us and then solving it, stabilizing it” (in which case, demonstrating that he knows le mot juste is just showing off) or he’s amplifying on le mot juste in full awareness that scarcely a single one of his readers will know what the word means, which is just maddening.

Either way, an infuriating Buckleyism.

It looks like door #2. From NOAD2 on the adjective:

supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck: apotropaic statues. ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Greek apotropaios ‘averting evil,’ from apotrepein ‘turn away or from’ + -ic

So Rowling’s writing averts the evil influences of the unimaginable by solving the unimaginable, stabilizing it (domesticating it, you might say).

The search for le mot juste can easily play out as a kind of preening obscurity, which I tend to read as an insult to the reader, that poor lexically deprived creature.

William F. Buckley, Jr. was famous for peppering his writing with obscure English words (from a variety of specialized contexts), paraded without explication for an audience that he knew full well wasn’t familiar with them. See my 11/9/11 posting on Buckley and his “big words”. Only Buckley would have insulted someone — it might have been Gore Vidal, but I haven’t found the context — by calling them retromingent (‘pissing backwards’).

Disingenuously, Buckley kept insisting that a writer must always use exact words.

2 Responses to “Le mot juste”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    In John Updike’s novel Gertrude and Claudius, an interesting (or so I thought) depiction of the “back-story” of Hamlet, the author annoyed me by peppering the prose with obscure words for elements of dress, especially as applied to the clothing worn by Polonius.

  2. Charles Finch Says:

    I am the offender here! Just got a google alert for this post.

    It’s a tricky question. I didn’t want to use the word without a context that could help the reader feel out what it meant, but I also didn’t want to eliminate a terms that diagnoses that phenomenon so closely, not least because my peers might have it in mind and wonder if I simply didn’t know it. At any rate, it certainly wasn’t intended showily. I like learning new words!

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