Young teacher teaching kids basic words in English Image Credit: Supplied

Have you ever, unwittingly, used the words omphaloskepsis and scrimshanker in the same sentence? And has someone, rolling their eyes with disbelief, labelled you sesquipedalian? Probably not. But there are folks out there who will endeavour to used words like that to assert themselves over their listeners, or to discomfort them, or to have them go wide-eyed with wonder and say, in very ordinary prose, ‘Gee, that’s quite a vocab you have there. What indeed does omphalo … whatever, and what’s the other one … shanker something … whatever do they mean?’

It’s all a ruse really, quips my opinionated friend, Barney, (who in private is prone to exactly the same behaviour but resents it when he comes across it in others.) It’s all a ruse, he says, because the speaker really wishes you to ask precisely that. What do the words mean? Just so they can then, with a haughty sense of knowing a lot more than you, look down their noses and reply, with fake humility,

“Well, you know, I actually used to be like you believe it or not. Truly. I quite detested large words, but it was this literature professor of mine way back who made this rather telling point in one of his lectures. He reminded us that there are thousands of words in dictionaries and thesauri begging for use yet we insist on relying on mundane prosaic tatterdemalion everyday ones. Be of good courage he used to say, use big words, use the rare ones, don’t be pusillanimous, be the bringers of light, the beacons for what lies enclosed and awaiting breath in the pages of those aforementioned dictionaries.”

Right. Message received. So what does ompalo whatever … mean? Turns out, omphaloskepsis is a term that describes the art of navel-gazing, or self-absorption, or literally doing nothing but idling. And scrimshakner, apparently, is one who might just be ideally qualified for a bout of omphaloskepsis. A scrimshanker being one who accepts neither responsibility, nor work. My mate Barney says, “Humble, prosaic people like you and me, Kevin, would do well to be equipped with one apt word. All you have to say when you encounter such people is, with a sense of fake respect, “Gee, I’ve got to say you’re quite the sesquipedalian.” That, according to Barney, ought to win us (humble people like him and me!) a modicum of respect. What’s sesquipedialian? I ask Barney, and I can tell he’s been waiting for me to do just this (despite aligning himself with the humble vocab lot like myself.)

‘A foot and a half’

“Erm, let me see now,” he says, pretending to search his formidable memory. It’s literally from the Latin for ‘a foot and a half’ and it refers usually to people with a penchant for using long words.” Right, Barney. But on a serious note, I think there’s merit in paying attention to these so-called sesquipedalian snobs. Way back, I was fortunate (or unfortunate depending on one’s point of view) to run into a sesquipedalian sort, from whom I learnt not only the term ‘serendipity’, but also the fact that its origins had connections with Sri Lanka, which was once long ago called Serendip. Of course, we know that serendipity means “making a discovery unexpectedly”.

Apparently serendip itself owes its origin to early Sanskrit ‘sinhaladvipa’ which means the ‘Island of Lions’. Serendipity was very much in my mind the other day when a police chase resulted in an accident with the target of the chase escaping and riding off into the night. But the car that accidentally got involved turned out to be of far greater interest to the cops. There must be an adjective for that, said Barney. Serendipitous? I offered.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.