Saturday, December 21, 2013

Unusual Words from Gravity's Rainbow

Here and there around the Web you'll find lists of vocabulary words culled from Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon's epic postmodern novel about the deployment of the V-2 rocket in World War II. I couldn't resist compiling such a list myself. I've been a professional writer, a student of the English language, for almost 40 years, and like Thomas Pynchon himself, I spent a good deal of time employed as a technical writer. It's not often I come across a word in English I've never seen before, but in reading Gravity's Rainbow, one finds oneself accosted by such words with metronomic regularity; which (if you're a student of the language) is a pleasant surprise indeed.

In the table further below are a few English words I'd not seen used in any novel before. (I've omitted words relating to architecture and fabrics, two areas where Pynchon seems to have developed a fetishistic devotion to lexical obscurata. Likewise, I make no attempt to list engineering terms, which are legion in Gravity's Rainbow.)

In case you want to try to catch a feel for the actual prose whence these words came, a Chinese site has the entire text of Gravity's Rainbow online, as follows:


I don't advocate attempting to read the entire book online, nor do I believe anyone would be so foolhardy as to try to do so. (I do strongly advocate buying the book or obtaining it from the library.) These links are meant as sample entry points.

Here, then, without further ado, are a few words I encountered in Gravity's Rainbow that I cannot recall encountering in any other novel in English:

Of or relating to the view that Christians are released by grace from the obligation of observing the moral law.
(verb) To decorate tastelessly.
The state of being only partly or scantily clothed.
(verb) To sleep in a usually uncomfortable place that does not have a bed.
An adventurous, daring, or chivalric enterprise
Coastal waters in Scotland and England.
(verb) Make excuses for.
A criminal carrying a gun.
nacre, nacreous
Nacre is mother-of-pearl, nacreous is thus a pearlescent or lustrous and iridescent white sheen.
Of or relating to dreams or dreaming.
1. A large van, esp one used for furniture removals. 2. A warehouse where furniture is stored.
Ornamental trimming for a garment, as braid, lace, or metallic beads.
1. The action of passing over or disregarding a matter, esp. the rhetorical technique of making summary mention of something by professing to omit it. 2. (in Calvinist theology) Omission from God's elect; nonelection to salvation.
A wharf or reinforced bank where ships are loaded or unloaded.
Of or relating to ricketts, the vitamin-deficiency disease.
Wind erodes snow from the windward side of an obstacle and deposits it on the lee side. Sastrugi are the ridge-like formations of snow thus produced.
Bony fish (such as tuna, swordfish) are scombroid fish. May also refer to illness (poisoning) from eating tainted fish of this general category.
Any of many needle-like crystalline structures that provide skeletal support in marine invertebrates.
A punishment identical to the offense (eye for an eye).
A wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action, e.g. "the notion intrigued me, but remained a velleity."