Saturday, January 8, 2011

Inaugural Post, In Which William F. Buckley, Jr. Gets a Vocabulary Lesson.

Whittaker Chambers is a favorite of mine and, while he is often thought of as somber, he was a very funny man - as Bill Rusher remembered him: "this ho-ho sort of guy." To wit, this letter to William F. Buckley, Jr.:
September 2, 1958
Dear Bill,
     Thank you for the Lolita, who has come to our house to stay. So far, I have met only three words which I did not recognize; and, as I cannot remember what they are, I must muddle through without them. If nictating1 puzzled you, that is perhaps because you did not learn, as a child, the meaning of haw, that is to say, "the nictating membrane or third eyelid of a horse." The grandeur of this definition, together with the fascinating fact that horses have three eyelids, has caused me to remember nictating all my life.  Perhaps phocine2 stumped you? If so, it is probably because the ph caused you to forget that Spanish calls the same thing: foca. (The French word for it is phoque; but, as we know, the French, they are a funny race, It is a quite innocuous word.) So much for lexicology.
1 Nictating membrane: "a thin membrane found in many animals at the inner angle or beneath the lower lid of the eye capable of extending across the eyeball."
(Webster's Third New International Dictionary)
2 Phocine: "of, relating to, or resembling seals." (Webster's Third New International Dictionary}*

Now that's funny. Both for the thought of Bill Buckley taking vocabulary instruction and the nicely oblique bomb of a certain sort dropped on the French.

*Odyssey Of A Friend: Letters To William F. Buckley, Jr. 1954-1961. 1987 reprint ed., page 212.
Current paperback ed., with foreword by Robert Novak here

CORRECTION: I carelessly linked to an edition of "Witness." A great book, too, but not what was called for here. A quick check suggests "Odyssey Of A Friend" is out of print, but used copies are available.

Update: The William A. Rusher quote is, more accurately and fully, "I was astonished to discover that he was this corpulent ho-ho sort of guy." Quoted in Chambers, "Ghosts On The Roof: The selected Journalism Of Whittaker Chambers" edited by Terry Teachout, page xxvii. In print in Paperback


  1. If it's phocine enough, you might get a lolrus!

  2. Lolrus? Impocerus! Thanks for breaking the new blog, guys!

  3. Thanks for breaking *in* the new blog;)

  4. Aw, and here I was, feelin' powerful, till you added the "in".

  5. A feeling of low dudgeon. Where am I?

  6. Stick with me, Sissy, while I fugure that out myself;)