There are some words that just seem suited to highfalutin, word-flavour-savouring usage. This surely is one of them. I say that not just because it’s four syllables and not just because it ends in acious, which is generally a marker for a sterling-silver word. Nor is it just that it has that nice symmetrical section in the middle, icaci, and has the opening force of per (as in perquisite and perlocutionary and the more bleached peroxide), with tastes of vicarious and vicus (as in James Joyce’s commodious vicus of recirculation). Admittedly, the notes of vicious, vacation, and pervert do not raise the tone, but the clear echoes of perspicacious and pertinacious certainly do, and the whisper of curvaceous can’t hurt. But what convinces me that this word wants to be used in a specially selected salad of lexis is the places I’ve seen it used.
That’s not too many places, to be sure. Odds are that this word is new to you – it’s what linguists call a low-frequency word, and in lexis, low frequency tends to come with high tone. It’s the kind of word you may see first in a thesaurus, especially if the thesaurus in question is The Thinker’s Thesaurus by Peter E. Meltzer, which the Signals catalogue I just received today touts, encouraging readers looking for a new word to “use something delicious, like ‘pervicacious.'” A new word for what? Well, let me see if you can get it from the following quotes, all served up nicely by the Oxford English Dictionary:
“One of the most pervicacious young creatures that ever was heard of.” Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson. (Taste the similar gestures in pervicacious and creatures. But hmm… does it mean pretty? Curvy? Perspicacious or pertinacious?)
“At once funky and firm, a pervicacious horde of floating voters, they rush confidently to support the worst candidate on offer.” Daily Telegraph, April 16, 1973. (Note the steady rhythm and late internal rhyme in pervicacious horde of floating voters. As to the meaning, I guess it’s not precarious… does sound kind of perverse.)
“I’m a word nerd. I get a kick out of tossing a few odd ones into my column, just to see if the pervicacious editors will weed them out.” Technology Review, June 1, 2001. (Well, that sounds like they’re pertinacious – or perhaps just picky. Note also that the bumpy rhythm of the sentence becomes smoother starting at pervicacious.)
“The pursuit of pervicacious donkeys who diverged into the green barley.” Las Alforjas, by G.J. Cayley. (OK, we all know that for some reason many authors feel they need to describe donkeys as stubborn, obstinate, pertinacious, or what have you, even though everybody already knows that that is their most salient trait. So that’s a pretty good clue. Meanwhile, note that the donkeys diverged, which is a rather high-toned way of putting it, and note the echoes between pursuit and pervicacious and between donkeys and barley.)
“A pertinacity which some call firmness, but I call the pervicacious obstinacy of inborn inveterate self-sufficiency.” Celebrated Political Letters 51 (1794), by “Somers.”
And with that last quote we get the picture rather clearly – of the meaning of this word (“obstinate, wilful, stubborn, headstrong, pertinacious”, from Latin pervicax “stubborn, headstrong”, probably from per “thoroughly” and vincere “win” – suggesting tenacity as well as pertinacity), but also of its tendency to be used in contexts where the author seems to be particularly enjoying arranging the verbal knick-knacks. Enjoying it, indeed, to a rather perverse and wayward and, perhaps, pervicacious extent. After all, tell me what kind of obstinacy could not be pervicacious. And, on the other hand, why use inborn and inveterate together?
You know that I am not one to insist on the briefest possible version of something; the rhythm and sound of the words, and the little semantic nuances they bring, count for more than some people allow. But there really does come a point where delight in the form and its silver shininess can take you beyond where the semantics can sustain it. Oh, the sounds bounce around so nicely in that sentence – the rhythm is very chunky and jumpy, but it passes back and forth the the per and per, cy and cy, in and in, little echoes of /t/ here and /f/ there… But it’s not a vocalise, it’s a political letter.
Oh well. Writers, eh? They will stick to their Lucullan pick of lucubration and pyrotechnical expostulation, perverse vacations in the workaday flow of the prose. To the last, pervicacious.