Thursday, April 5, 2012

Guest Post: James Harbeck Tastes Ascapartic

James Harbeck is the logophile behind the blog Sesquiotica, which, even more so that Logophilius, is devoted to words, words, words. James is a lexical sommelier who explores not only what a word means and where it comes from, but how a word feels when you say it — in short, how a word tastes.

Today, he's dipped into the linguistic smorgasbord that is Infinite Jest and has come up with a taste of ascapartic.

David Foster Wallace has confected a nearly infinite jest on readers with his brobdingnagian book Infinite Jest and the gargantuan vocabulary he uses therein. Consider this passage — describing types I recognize from life:
this was the kind of hideously attractive girl you just knew in advance did not associate with normal collegiate human males, and clearly attended B.U.-Athletic social functions only out of a sort of bland scientific interest while she waited for the cleft-chinned ascapartic male-model-looking wildly-successful-in-business adult male she doubtless was involved with to telephone her from the back seat of his green stretch Infiniti.
Ah, that turn of phrase, with its occasional saffron thread of novel lexis as elusive as it is allusive. Ascapartic? Where’s that from (WTF)? It has stimulated assorted online discussions entomologically entumoured and tumescent with ex tempore etymology. One almost comes to wonder whether the spectacular specimen’s car is a classiomatic.

It has a nice taste, to be sure: crisp, perhaps refreshing; after a tongue-tip hiss, the stops, voiceless all, crack from the back to the lips to the tip to the back, with merely the little thrill of a liquid trill to add further to the vowels. As a written form, it is long but short: ten letters, but the heights only tapped by ti. The rest are mostly the curly little trolls, a s c and so on.

So what could this alpha male be? A scrappy Spartacus? An ASCAP artist escaped from the Arctic? Could you with a speculum or scope discern a cleft scapula counterpoised to his spectacular pectorals? In a scrap with a cop in a copse, could he expectorate pixelations to scupper a cepstrum? I don’t expect an ex post facto exculpation of David Foster Wallace, but I will speculate that that prick could have expostulated an explication of his lexicocerebral copulation.

Well, maybe an illumination of the allusion will elucidate. Ascapartic is an adjective formed from Ascapart, also spelled Ascupart, the name of a figure from English legend who was defeated by Bevis of Hampton.

"Hey, Bevis! Don't be such a butthead!"
Oh, well. That explains everything . . . if you had only happened to ask a part of the question. OK, I don’t know about you, but until I looked this up I had never heard of Bevis of Hampton. I was tempted to wonder whether he hung out with Butthead of Doubletree. But nope, he’s a figure from medieval legend, and Ascapart was a giant, a Paul-Bunyan-scale sort who used a club made from a whole tree. He swung it at Bevis; it got stuck in the mud; Bevis, rather than killing Ascapart, made him his squire.

And now Ascapart is become a squire word — an adjective, a verbal servant. He has been lanced in Wallace’s infinite joust. I feel sure that you, too, will soon use this word. So what if we have other allusive words for great magnitude — brobdingnagian and gargantuan, for instance. Who doesn’t love a nice shiny new toy?

For more word nerd deliciousness, check out his work at Sesquiotica and follow him on Twitter at @Sesquiotic.