As most of you may know by now, author David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12th at the age of 46.
My husband and I did not know him, nor had we ever quite gotten around to reading our copy of Infinite Jest, but we were both stunned by the news, especially coming so soon after 9/11. He was only a few years older than us, and he had achieved the kind of success (both critical and commercial) most authors can only dream of, with a MacArthur “genius grant” as the icing on the cake. I can’t help but think about the wife he left behind and the books he’ll never write, and I fear the way he died will eclipse his talents as a writer and teacher.
In my first “Writer’s Bookshelf” post, I highly recommended the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. David Foster Wallace was one of the contributing editors, and it was he who wrote the word note for “utilize” (“This is a puff-word…”) that I quoted to illustrate the style of the work. These are the other word notes written by him: all of, beg, bland, critique, dialogue, dysphesia, effete, feckless, fervent, focus, hairy, if, impossibly, individual, loan, mucous, myriad, noma, privilege, pulchritude, that, toward, unique.
Here are a few more quotes from David Foster Wallace’s word notes:
This is a medical noun with some timely nonmedical applications. Educated writers already use aphasia to refer to a brain-centered inability to use language, which is close but not identical to the medical meaning. Dysphesia can be similarly extended from its technical def to mean really severe difficulties with forming coherent sentences. As anyone who’s listened to our current president knows, there are speakers whose lack of facility goes way beyond the range of clumsy or articulate. Our president’s public English, like that of his father before him, is dysphesiac.
This is one of those adverbs that’s formed from an adjective and can modify only modifiers, never verbs. Using these sorts of adverbs–impossibly fast, extraordinarily yummy, irreducibly complex–is an upscale educated speech tic that translates well to writing. Not only can the adverbs be as colorful/funny/snarky as you like, but the device is a neat way to up the formality of your prose without sacrificing personality; it makes the writer sound like an actual person, albeit a classy one. The big caveat is that you can’t use these special-adverb-plus-adjective constructions more than once every few sentences or your prose starts to look like it’s trying too hard.
A paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adjectival form pulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the very opposite of the qualities they denote…. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves.