Terra Incognita – The Special Vocabulary Edition

A special treat for you! One of the things that was great about Sara Wheeler is her massive vocabulary. Words that I’ve seen only in passing (but never knew the actual definition for) and words that I’ve never seen pepper her book. So I started keeping a running list of new and exciting words in order to define them later.


Toponym – I tried to guess at what this meant by its context and failed. Apparently it’s a “place name, usually derived from a topographical feature.” This is a terrible word.

Scrofulous – I assumed this was a way of saying “nefariously scruffy,” but it means “relating to tuberculosis of the lymph nodes” or “morally contaminated.” She was describing a penguin at the time, so I’m not sure which she was going for.

Gnomic – Not, as I assumed, related to gnomes. Instead a description of “pithy maxims,” which I think is just the dictionary’s way of getting you to use the dictionary more.

Atavistic – For some reason, I have always associated this word with Hinduism. Now having seen the actual definition (“characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral”), I’m wondering where I got so screwed up.

Austral – I didn’t even know what to do with this word. Apparently means “relating to the south.” Sure.

Peripatetic – Another word for nomadic. Why we needed more than one word for “nomadic,” I don’t know. Blaming the Russians.

Candent – Was hoping this related to music, instead means “glowing, as if from a great heat.” I should have known this, but somehow failed in that process.

Moraine – This word kept getting used over and over and I had zero clue what it meant, as I never saw anything resembling a definition for it (which happened often in this book–some sort of Antarctic or Artic-related term would come up that I had never heard and Wheeler wouldn’t give a definition for it). “A mass of rocks or sediment carried down and deposited by a glacier, typically as ridges at its edges.”

Alluvial – “Relating to or derived from alluvium.” Thanks so much, internet. You’re a real pal. (Looked up “alluvium.” A rich soil. Great.)

Palimpest – Having read the definition, I have only one question: why does anyone even use this word? “A manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.” Christ.

Bathetic – Was hoping that this was just a dyslexic typo of “pathetic,” but is an actual word. “Producing the unintentional effect of an anticlimax.” This word itself is bathetic.

Leitmotif – I think she’s just picking words to fuck with her readers now. Who is going to know what this means? WHO? “A recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.”


Etoilated – I thought this might have to do with the French “etoile” (star) because she was referring to a General or the like, so possibly a decorated/highly starred military man, but no. It means having lost vigor. Vigorless. This word disappoints me.

Crenellate – I knew that there are crenellated dresses, so I figured this had something to do with fashion or style, but it actually means “to provide a wall of a building with battlements.” That explains much of women’s fashion.

Crepuscular – Due to my parents’ habit of dragging me to National Parks, I knew this word had something to do with daylight and not with unnerving blood vessels. “Resembling or relating to twilight.” “Twilight-ish” is not a real word, so I suppose crepuscular will have to do.

Pellucid – For some reason, I decided this word had something to do with erections. Alas, no. “Translucently clear.” Mind you, “translucently” means “semi-transparently” so this word describes something that is semi-transparently transparent.

Scow – Another one of the words that Wheeler probably should have defined, as it is nautical in nature and not part of common vocabulary, but did not. It’s a type of small boat. Woo.

Proleptic – This word can fuck right off. This word is the equivalent of Inuits having 300 words for different types of snow or whatever. It’s a specific type of anticipation. No, using “anticipation” isn’t good enough for some people. They have to have a word that contains the nature of what is being anticipated. In this case, “A. The representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished. [OR] B. The application of an adjective to a noun in anticipation of the result of the action of the verb.”

Restina – This word doesn’t actually come up in either Merriam-Webster or Dictionary.com, but I remembered it was something someone was drinking and was able to determine through further Googling that it is a Greek wine made from tree resin.

Tabular – This word was not used in the way I knew it, but it turns out that there’s a second(!) definition, which is “broad and flat like the top of a table.” I’m pretty sure someone like me just made that word up a century ago and managed to get it to stick.

Peroration – In the book, someone was speaking, but Wheeler described it as “peroration” rather than just “oration” and I was curious as to the difference (assuming there was any). And, oddly/sadly, there is a difference. A “peroration” is “the concluding part of a speech, typically intended to inspire enthusiasm in an audience.” I took Speech & Debate in high school and I don’t remember this term every being used, which seems odd.

Exigency – This word has popped up repeatedly in the last few years and I’ve always squeaked by by using context. I realized I should fix that. An exigency is, basically, an urgent need. For example, I have an exigency to go to the bathroom. (I may have used that incorrectly.)

Peregrination – Hitting its popularity peak in the early 1800s (a trait I’m assuming most of these words share), a “peregrination” is a “meandering journey.” Please find a way to work that word into your daily life.

So there’s your vocabulary lesson for the year.  Until next time, folks.