And the Winner Is...
What did I learn from the Winter 2003 Contest? (The pellucid challenge, you'll recall, was to determine the origin and logic of a list of 27 words, including "adumbrating," "cenotaph," "farinaceous," "ablution," and "equerry.") I learned that far too many readers think I'm the kind of person who would read and then construct an entire contest around the vocabulary in Master and Commander (what do I look like, a valetudinarian former conscript in a veterans' hospital who, at his senescent age, has taken a liking to seafaring historical novels?), that several readers of this column believe Shakespeare lived to be 300 years old (note to the sloppy and frankly intellectually pusillanimous etymologists in the room: "cosh" didn't come into use until the 19th century), and that, in contrast to my otiose weekly attempts at provoking reader mail merely by being provocative, nothing motivates readers to write in like a little pecuniary incentive.
The answer to the Winter 2003 Contest was not that every word in the list could become another word with the alteration of a single letter (although I see how words like "eructed," "tumid," and "cowl" threw several readers). Nor was the answer that every word in the list is a Latinate ("surplice," "tutelary," and "unguent" are derived from the Latin, but "sward" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon sweard, akin to the Dutch zwoord, the Danish sv11r, the German schwarte, and the Icelandic svordhr). And, again, the answer had nothing to do with Master and Commander (though, as if by collective afflatus, many readers guessed that the list of words was derived from said Patrick O'Brian novel, the one recently adapted for the big screen, which I think speaks more to actor Russell Crowe's seemingly sempiternal popularity than it does to any logical, literary deduction).
The obverse of all the incorrect answers, of course, is the correct answer, and the key to the correct answer could easily be found--as one Devin O'Reilly found it--simply by scanning The Stranger's previous few months of books content. In a brief yet refulgent review of the recent Martin Amis novel Yellow Dog, intellectual-at-large Sean Nelson noted that "at least once every page [there is] a beautiful word that sends the devoted reader hurtling toward his or her American Heritage."
As I read Yellow Dog I too found myself often reaching for unabridged reference material (try finding "maquillage" in a shitty dictionary) with such frequency that it became too effortful to look up each unfamiliar word I encountered, so I started just jotting them down. (Some of them, of course, were more unfamiliar than others. I vaguely knew what an estuary was, but sequelae?)
Thus the list.
Devin O'Reilly wins the $50 gift certificate to Bailey/Coy Books and promises not to spend it all on Master and Commander.