Foucault’s pendulum – a real vocabulary expander

One of the books I bought over Christmas was Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.  It’s basically poking fun at conspiracy stores like The Da Vinci Code, albeit that it is not on the bandwagon as I first thought – it was actually published in 1988.  The story itself is well put together, and manages to be both enjoyable whilst not becoming yet another historic mystery story.  However, it’s not the story that stands out, it’s the truly huge vocabulary.  I am not clear how much of this is down to Eco, and how much to William Weaver who translated it into English, but it is so much a tour de force that I was left at times wondering if Eco and/or Weaver had a bet in a pub that they could write a book with a thousand words that weren’t in the equivalent of the standard scrabble dictionary.  In fact, it is so notable that there is even an online concordance that defines many of the more complex words.

Some of my favourites were Avunculogratulation (the act of meeting uncles), Hyperboreal (the far North, really beyond the North Wind), phlogiston (the stuff that was thought to be part of any combustible substance), and tatterdemalions (dirty, shabbily clothed urchins)  …  I promise to try not to use them in polite conversation!

On top of the wild ride through the dictionary, the book also covers a huge range of historical groups, activities and places that I had not heard of before, as well as many that are more common like the Templars and the Jesuits.  A good example is the castle of Alamut, which was an almost impregnable fortress built on top of a mountain.  Fascinating, and I’d never heard of it.  Those I know a little more about seem to be outlined accurately, not edited to suit the story – in fact I suspect it’s easy to work out what’s real and what’s not.  I read it straight through without diving off to find out more about some of these references , but I can see myself going back to it to dip into some of the areas I know nothing about.

There also seems to be the assumption that the reader is capable of reading French, Italian, Latin and German.  I don’t, so the sentences in those languages were pretty tricky to suss out, albeat you can work many of them out. And, I don’t feel I missed much by skimming over the pieces I couldn’t translate.  All in all, it was enjoyable, but I think I need something a little lighter now to balance it out!

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One Response to Foucault’s pendulum – a real vocabulary expander

  1. David Khan says:

    It is a lovely book.

    On a slight tangent a contraction of hyperboreal was used in the setting for the Conan novels and the castle shows up in the electronic game ‘assasins creed’.

    A wasted youth and a wasted adulthood spawns all sorts of useless facts!

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