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This morning I learned a new word–emphyteutic, as in “an emphyteutic lease.”

I learned it because I looked it up, stopping my day at the beginning to hit the dictionary when a short paragraph I was reading hit me with the thing, and I couldn’t remember ever having seen it before.

An emphyteutic lease is a very long term one–99 years, say, or even forever–that sometimes comes with requirements that the tenants improve the property and do other services for the landlord.

It was a common arrangement in the disintegrating Byzantine empire of the 7th and later centuries.

It is a much less common arrangement now, but it exists as a category in our law and in English common law, and the English are fairly entranced with the idea.  You can still buy 99 year leases for London real estate, and then sell the remainder of that lease as if you were selling a house.

In case you’re wondering what the point of all this–I don’t have a point about emphyteutic leases. 

I did find it interesting that there is actually a word for an arrangement I’d known about for years.  You have to be very careful, if you’re buying real estate in London, to make sure you’re looking at freeholds and not leases.

Although lots of Londoners like the leases.  Americans, not so much.

My point is that a word came along that I had never sen before, and I learned it because it was there to learn, and I liked learning it, even though the likelihood is great that I will never again need it in my life.

The paragraph I read was in a book about the Byzantine empire that I’m using to tide myself over until I can get to something else. 

The books is a volume in one of those ambitious publishing programs some houses do.  This one has to do with an overall short picture of various eras in various places–Medieval Italy, the Byzantine Empire, I don’t remember what else–meant for a general reader, and accompanied by lots and lots and lots of color plates and black and white photographs both.

I run into these projects every once in a while, and sometimes they can be very helpful.  I have a wonderful little book on Piero della Francesca that includes an essay by one of the Huxleys and, yet again, all those color plates.

This particular book isn’t as interesting as the one on Piero della Francesca, but it’s also not from the same publishing program.

What it is is the kind of generalist overview history that makes most people fall asleep–here’s how the city was run, here’s what the farmers did, here’s a quick overview of a few centuries in which wars and palace intrigues resulted in the change of emperor every year or two.

And, in Byzantium, these intrigues and assassinations occured in little groups of people with clumping names, so you have people named Constantine, Constantius and Constans all battling it out for who would become Emperor until you have to take notes to know who is who.

And even then you’re not 100% sure.

I am not, as you can tell, all that interested in the book.

But I am interested in the word, and that puzzles me in a way.  I’m always interested in the words, and over the years that has not only “expanded my vocabulary” but done it in a way where I have sometimes become less clear to the people around me.

Let’s face it.  If I ever decide to buy one of those emphyteutic leases, I won’t be doing anybody any good–except my solicitor, maybe–if I refer to it that way.

I’m not the only person who does this, of course, and sometimes the word you find is wonderful on many levels.

There’s the word stercoraceous, for instance.  It essentially means “full of shit,” but that isn’t what it sounds like.  What it sounds like is something along the lines of “copacetic,” a compliment, something good you’re saying about somebody.

You have no idea how much trouble that kept me out of in the days when I was endlessly fighting with my mother.

An awful lot of the words I become entranced with, however, have little or no use in my life. 

I just like the way they sound, and I like them better the more polysyllabic they are.

I like the word “polysyllabic.”

And because what I do most of the time on most days, these words I pick up tend to get integrated into my speech and writing before I manage to notice it, so that I end up getting into tangled webs of arguments on things like FB and Internet forums with people who inevitably just think I’m putting it on.

In this case, though, the accusations of putting it on aren’t what bother me.

What bothers me is that as soon as that starts, the discussion has been knocked off course for the remainder of the time it’s got left, and I end up never having made my point.

Even when people aren’t mad at me, we end up doing more word definitions than arguments about the use of the death penalty or whether pigs have wings.

Of course, as soon as I tell myself I have to stop it, one of those wonderful words comes along.

I give you oomphaloskepsis–a word that means “contemplating one’s navel as an aid to medidation,” but that works just as well, and often, as meaning contemplating one’s navel as an act of idiocy.

I sometimes wonder if there was ever a world out there, or part of a world, where groups of people used words like these as a matter of course.

I tend to doubt it.

I think these words exist because there are other people in the world who are as enamored of polysyllabism as I am, and they make them up.

I haven’t made one up myself yet, but inventing a word has always been one of my secret ambitions.

Maybe someday I’ll get around to it.

Written by janeh

June 17th, 2014 at 10:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Words'

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  1. 99-year leases are the norm for householder titles here in the Australian Capital Territory, a Federal Government sheltered workshop somewhat analogous to the District of Columbia.


    17 Jun 14 at 12:01 pm

  2. I have a fair vocabulary myself, and I’ve always found it necessary to modify my word choice depending on my audience. It does no good to talk in words of five syllables to a group of factory workers. In fact it can be counterproductive.

    A writer who seems to integrate the odd and intriguing word is Stephen R Donaldson, who wrote the Thomas Covenant series. One of those times when reading with a dictionary at hand seems necessary. If I’d been able to read the series on Kindle, it would have been great, just to be able to highlight the words and get the definition right then.

    I have a personal affection for words that make your mouth happy to say them. Like uvula. Sussuration. Tintinabulation.

    Have you ever read Suzette Haden Elgin’s “Native Tongue” series of books about the women linguists who build a new reality for themselves by building a new language? They call the discovery of a word for a previously undefined entity an Encoding.


    17 Jun 14 at 1:05 pm

  3. There used to be leasehold land here in St. John’s, NL, too, although I think most of it or all of it has been sold to the holders of the lease – with an effort to keep the price down for poor leaseholders. One family I knew had a 999 year lease. We all though it must have been due to a slip of the pen because most were for 99 years. The land under that family’s house had a local owner which was willing to participate in the “sell the land to the tenants owning the house at a cheap price” program, but some leaseholds belonged to the descendants of people in the UK who had invested here a hundred or two years ago. The amounts involved were so small the descendants often didn’t bother with them, but getting clear title could be such a challenge that there were and probably are lawyers that specialize in the real estate in certain parts of the city.

    I know a LOT more words than I routinely use in speech, and like Lymaree, I tend to adjust my speech to my audience. I don’t have any special fascination for long words, though. I just like having lots to choose from.


    17 Jun 14 at 2:06 pm

  4. If speech–or writing–is intended as communication, than it MUST be tailored for the recipient. Otherwise, you’re transmitting in a code for which the other fellow has no key–or just showing off. That said, from THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY:

    OLEAGINOUS: adj. Oily, smooth, sleek.
    Disraeli once described the manner of Bishop Wilberforce as “unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous” and the good prelate was ever afterward known as Soapy Sam. For every man there is something in the vocabulary that would stick to him like a second skin. His enemies have only to find it.

    As for book series, I always keep an eye out for the old University of Oklahoma “Centers of Civilization” series, but I don’t even know how many there are. The University stopped printing them before everything went on line, so librarians will solemnly tell me there is no such series no matter how many volumes I wave in front of them. They have titles like ANTIOCH IN THE AGE OF THEODOSIUS THE GREAT or CHARLESTON IN THE AGE OF CHARLES PINKNEY. A good lot, on an average. I commend them to you all.


    17 Jun 14 at 5:23 pm

  5. OK, mini-hijack time again, althoughJane’s been so busy it’s hardly necessary. But it’s kinda-sorta apropos.

    The following are two quotes from The Australian newspaper, a Murdoch-owned conservative-ish national daily broadsheet:

    “On the contrary, it’s a book made more fascinating by Gleeson’s natural reticence to talk about his role at the forefront of the political, legal and social convulsions in Australia during his 50 years in the law. Here is a book that breathes the true nature of Gleeson and his unwavering belief in the proper role of a judge.”

    “THE pivot to Asia is hard to envisage until the US overcomes its post-Bush reticence.”

    Now, taking the second quote first, since when has “reticence” replaced “reluctance”? It’s a plague among journalists down here, even old pros like Paul Kelly. Or are my distant memories of a very thorough but limited education in English usage misleading me?

    As for the first quote, surely “reticence to talk” is a redundancy.

    Finally, another atrocity (to me) has swamped the media and common speech down here. Briefly, I call it the “than what” construct, as in “He earns more money than what I do”. Once again, am I being unreasonably pedantic, or is the Apocalypse truly upon us?


    17 Jun 14 at 8:47 pm

  6. “Once again, am I being unreasonably pedantic, or is the Apocalypse truly upon us?”

    Not an either/or question, Mique. ;)


    17 Jun 14 at 10:11 pm

  7. I’ll take that as a “not only, but also” answer, then?


    17 Jun 14 at 10:53 pm

  8. A hijack, I’ll admit, but it’s one of Jane’s recurring subjects, and ladies and gentlemen, we have here a classic:



    18 Jun 14 at 9:04 pm

  9. Beautiful.


    18 Jun 14 at 9:35 pm

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