Words I Didn’t Know Before Reading Infinite Jest

  1. Ulysses | 30,030
  2. Les Miserable | 23,334
  3. Infinite Jest | 20,584

Coming up bronze in a list of most unique words used in a novel, DFW’s Infinite Jest implores you to keep a dictionary handy. While Wallace’s lexicon is undeniably impressive, after picking up Webster or hitting up Google for the eighth time before finishing a single page you may begin to wonder just what is the point? What does this incredible display of language accomplish besides linguistic masturbation? Before lambasting IJ as prolix or self-serving, I’d like to suggest an idea. Novels of this length (this carpal-tunnel inducing length) attempt to represent life. Not only to delve into one idea, or several ideas, but to act as a stand-in for all of life’s complexity, mundanity, and hilarity.

Another way DFW could have accomplished a book with such an audacious theme is to go the biographical route. He could have chosen a protagonist — preferably someone leading a full and vivacious life — and transcribed every incident, conversation, and thought that ever passed through the consciousness of our narrative hero. Published, the book would probably be as tall as the Spire of Dublin and nobody would ever read it. Since DFW doesn’t have 100 years to complete such an exhaustive and pointless endeavor, the breadth of vocabulary makes up for the deficiency in time. If IJ is an attempt at encapsulating the human experience, we can’t waste ink on limp-dick words like ‘nice’ or ‘big’. We’ve got to the point! We’ve got to be more specific! We’ve got to be multi-syllabic!

Anyway, let’s do it: first up, wen.

♪ wen (n) abnormal growth or cyst

♪ matriculation (n) admittance into a group, especially a college or university

♪ mottle (n) a diversifying spot or blotch of color

♪ Kekuléan (adj) DFW seems to have coined this term after the German chemist August Kekulé, known for his discovery of the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule

♪ hirsute (adj) covered with hair

♪ presbyopic (adj) unable to focus sharply on nearby objects

♪ pase (n) a maneuver with the cape in bullfighting to gain the attention of the bull

♪ enfilade (n) a volley of gunfire directed along a line

♪ espadrille (n) a flat shoe with a cloth upper, a rope sole, and sometimes lacing that ties around the ankle

♪ pleurisy (n) inflammation of the pleura [a delicate membrane investing each lung in mammals and folded back as a lining of the corresponding side of the thorax]

♪ priapistic (adj) relating to persistent erection of the penis without sexual arousal

♪ prostatectomy (n) a surgical operation to remove all or part of the prostate gland

♪ maxillofacial (n) of or relating to the jaws and face

♪ ad valorem (adv) in proportion to the estimated value of the goods or transaction concerned

♪ anfractuous (adj) sinuous or circuitous

♪ portcullis (n) a strong, heavy grating sliding up and down in vertical grooves, lowered to block a gateway to a fortress or town

♪ phylacteryish (adj) a vessel or case containing a holy relic-ish

♪ imprimatur (n) an official license by the Roman Catholic Church to print an ecclesiastical or religious book

♪ fantod (n) a state or attack of uneasiness or unreasonableness

♪ kismet (n) destiny; fate

♪ acetate (n) a salt or ester of acetic acid

♪ adenoidal (adj) exhibiting the characteristics (e.g. snoring, mouth-breathing) of one affected with abnoramlly enlarged adenoids

♪ apocopes (n) the loss of a sound or sounds at the end of a word

♪ grackle (n) a songbird of the American blackbird family, the male of which has shiny black plumage with a blue-green sheen

♪ phosphenic (adj) relating to phosphene, a luminous image produced by mechanical stimulation of the retina

♪ bolections (n) a decorative molding that separates two planes, especially around a wooden panel, usually convex

♪ reglets (n) a narrow strip used to separate moldings or panels from one another

♪ dipsomaniacal (adj) relating to dipsomania, an insatiable craving for alcoholic beverages

♪ nadir (n) the lowest point in the fortunes of a person or organization

♪ acumen (n) the ability to make good judgments and quick decisions, typically in a particular domain

♪ homosoline projection (n) an equal-area projection of the world, distorting ocean areas in order to minimize the distortion of the continents

♪ recondite (adj) little known; abstruse

♪ mordantly (adj) sharply caustic or sarcastic

♪ feck (n) worth; value

♪ festschrift (n) a collection of writings published in honor of a scholar

♪ zither (n) a musical instrument consisting of a flat wooden sound box with numerous strings stretched across it, placed horizontally and played with the fingers and a plectrum

♪ muscimole (n) a hallucinogenic alkaloid present in the fly agaric and other related fungi

♪ agaric (n) a fungus with a fruiting body that resembles the ordinary mushroom, having a convex or flattened cap with gills on the underside

♪ colloquium (n) an academic conference or seminar

♪ titrated (v) ascertain the amount of a constituent in a solution by measuring the volume of a known concentration of reagent required to complete a reaction with it, typically using a indicator