The Defense

I’ve been rereading Vladimir Nabokov’s early novel The Defense, about Luzhin, a socially maladroit grandmaster who comes to see the entire world as one big chess game.  The book is a fun read, and it was necessary for me to review it because I discuss Luzhin’s decent into madness in my own, forthcoming book about chess obsession, King’s Gambit: A Father, a Son, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game

English was not Nabokov’s first languagehe collaborated with a translator on The Defensebut the book is a lexicographic wet dream.  His exuberant prose is bursting with simple and sesquipedalian words, which stumped me (and I used to oversee a dictionary company!).  

Opening the book at random, to pages 178 and 179, I find half a dozen unfamiliar words on that spread alonea testament to his erudition (and the fact that my religious upbringing was obviously sub-par):

  • epigaster
  • censer
  • thurible
  • matins
  • censer
  • paschal

Five points for guessing which word means “the posterior part of the embryonic intestine from which the colon develops.”  Ten points for unobtrusively slipping the word into a conversation!

3 Responses to “The Defense”

  1. Pascal Charbonneau Says:

    I am sad to see that I know the meaning of the words with non-religious meanings (I am guessing those I do not know are the religious terms) It had been some centuries since I had been reminded that taking latin/greek for years was inherently useful, but thanks to your post, I have regained faith (in the usefulness of latin/greek, that is), my guess for five points is that the word is epigaster. Thinking of words like gastric, gastro-enteric, and even gastronomy, seems to involve the intestine. Epi means on top. Alright, that’s it.

    Matins is kind of interesting. The word in French means “mornings” but matines (which is used in the Brother Jack song) refers to the bells that ring in the early morning, or something like that. This carried over in english to the adjective “matinal” but I think I am the only one to have used it in the past 12 years.


  2. paulhoffman Says:

    OK, five points for the epigaster definition. Five points extra credit for the discource on matins. Now go for an additional fifteen by dropping epigaster into a sentence!

  3. HagstromCondor Says:

    re: “Now go for an additional fifteen by dropping epigaster into a sentence!

    I’m unable to do so, although the skilled lexicographer would deem such exercise alimentary.

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