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DFW's Vocab List: "Tennis," Anyone?

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Martin Schneider writes:

A few weeks ago it was reported that the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, had purchased the letters and ephemera of David Foster Wallace. One item of note was his dictionary, which contained various markings. It's difficult to think of another writer for whom the personal dictionary would be of such special interest, but no popular writer ever used such pointedly obscure words so frequently and so winningly.

Now Slate has cleverly provided a list of words circled by Wallace. The words on the list couldn't be better, they are almost all quite obscure; I think many highly literate people will be unfamiliar with a great many of them. They are also quite Wallacean, and in certain cases the close reader of Wallace will be able to remember specific words and the exact context in which they appear in Wallace's works. (For example, I think "espadrille" makes an appearance in the opening pages of Infinite Jest.)

The least difficult word on the list may be "tennis," which pursuit had a particular importance to Wallace. It's remarkable to see that word, of all words, nestled between "tenesmus" and "tepefy."

Although the list is difficult, it also provides hope. For the implicit meaning of a word circled in the dictionary is that the word was a new acquaintance to the encircler. So in considering a writer of so vast a vocabulary as Wallace, even he had to do the ignoble legwork of tracking down these words, much the same way a foreign student of the language might have to circle "shoulder" or "carrot."

Learning about language is an inherently democratic pastime—and also one that never comes to an end.

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