Wednesday Word of the Week 3


Word of the Week 3: Nugatory

Welcome to Wednesday Word of the Week, a hump-day cyber celebration of skillful and felicitous word choice selected from my current reading. (And note that I am not providing the definitions here in the hopes that 1) readers may already recognize the word, or 2) readers will be stimulated to look it up after attempting first to identify the meaning from context.)

This week I am reminded of the literature I read in my teens and early twenties, what academics refer to as the “canon”: Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, George Elliot, Anthony Trollope, the Romantic poets. How I thrilled to the language, the phrasings, the settings (moors and heaths and bowling-greens; manors, coach houses and lodges). Later I pilgrimaged even farther back to Milton and Pope, William Blake and John Donne, all those illustrious pillars over which towers the greatest of them all—Shakespeare.

Twentieth-century British literature later offered equally satisfying linguistic gems, not to mention psychological insights. I won’t tally them here but as a quick example take the wicked wit of Evelyn Waugh or the randy, cutting humor of Kingsley Amos. Brilliant story-tellers all, but for me, not the least of the pleasure derived from reading British literature has been the “smashing” command of the mother tongue, the rich complex phrasings, and the delightful and unexpected variety of word choice.

Which brings me to this week’s book, from 1957, The Midwich Cuckoos by John Beynon Harris, written under the pseudonym of John Wyndham. Readers may be familiar with the film version of this classic science fiction tale, Village of the Damned. (This is not the place to decry Hollywood’s maddening habit of substituting strategically coined book titles with sensationalistic schlock; still it must be noted that the infiltrating habits of the cuckoo birds provide an important analogy.)

On an ordinary fall day in the sleepy postwar English village of Midwich, a mysterious phenomenon renders the entire population unconscious for one day. Aerial surveillance reveals a cigar-shaped silvery craft situated smack in the center of the zone affected, which disappears as the effects wear off. Shortly thereafter, all the women of child-bearing age discover themselves pregnant. When the children born of this presumed xenogenesis exhibit frightening shared traits, central citizens of the town must confront the terrifying possibility of an alien invasion designed to destroy Western civilization from within.

American SF writer Damon Knight excoriated the book for its “layers of polite restraint, sentimentality . . . and women’s-magazine masochism,” but for me, these elements paint a rich portrait of English village life on the threshold of obsolescence. Altogether, they present a reading experience that is refreshingly un-PC and add a bit of “jolly good fun” to the chilling plot.

It’s just one of those chauvinistic elements that gives us today’s example.

The Reverend Leebody, determined that the radio program he is listening to on the “Pre-Sophoclean Conception of the Oedipus Complex” should not be drowned out by the “piffle” of his wife Dora’s telephone conversation, advances the volume knob another five degrees.

“He could not be blamed for failing to guess that what now struck him as a particularly nugatory exchange of feminine concerns would subsequently prove to be of importance.”

Thanks to my husband, aka The Professor, for suggesting yet another great novel from his always-evolving List of Best Science Fiction Novels.

I invite other examples of a particularly adept use of “nugatory.” Perhaps I could think of one employing it in an observation of my male relatives’ propensity for endless ESPN viewing.


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