You do well to be cagey when unlacing a language’s insouciant linguistic genius, for you may find its dark underside, its cabinet of Doctor Caligari, its closet of Caligula. But sometimes these dark undersides are callipygian: light and lithe on the tongue, prettily curved for the eyes, exquisite for lexical carousing. So fine, in fact, that they may slip into a party purely by pulchritude and do a star turn on a stage not their own.
Consider this line from The Wizard of Oz: “You clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk!” So expressive, so sound-symbolic. But therein is an obscurity: caliginous. What is this abecedarian coelacanth or architeuthis dux doing scaling de profundis into the mechanical racket as a sesquipedalian expletive? What, in fact, would caliginous junk be?
I’m rather inclined to think it’s what one finds in a Jawa sandcrawler or perhaps the corners of an HR Giger painting or an issue of Heavy Metal magazine, or second after second of Blade Runner. We know what junk is, especially clinking, clanking, clattering collected junk. But what can make it caliginous is just darkness and mist.
Caliginous is not just an obscure word; it is a word of obscurity. It is obnubilation. Latin caliginosus means ‘misty, dark, obscure’; it comes from a root referring to fog. You may thus picture dim heaps of rusting metal dripping with oil and condensed smog. And yet they are named with this shining lexeme, so suited to lamprophony. It is a light and dry way to refer to wet darkness.