One of the things I love about Jane Austen’s work is her vocabulary. As a twenty-first century American reading the work of a late eighteenth-early nineteenth century English writer there are plenty of subtle connotative differences I enjoy noticing. The English minor in me is awakened to the etymological shifts of time and culture. Words I thought I knew gain new depth, but then there are some words I come across that I have never seen anywhere else–certainly, I’ve never heard them spoken. In reading Emma the top of my vocabulary list of curious words just became valetudinarian.
valetudinarian (according to my Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English, fourth edition) n. Person compelled or (usu.) disposed to live the life of an invalid (often attrib., as v. ways). valetudinarianism
This word in fascinating for several reasons. It’s new to me, it starts with a v, it’s fun to say, and it describes Emma’s father. So, to understand Mr. Woodhouse one must understand the word, likewise, understanding Mr. Woodhouse helps one fully understand the word. I apologize for the Mad Hatter moment there, but I’m sure you followed along just fine.
Learning a new word for me is like what I imagine finding a new color is for an artist. I want to know what it means and how to use it, then I want to find a way to use it. V-words have been particularly interesting to me ever since the first time I was in an introductory circle (in my first art class of all places) where we had to say our name, and then one word to describe ourselves that started with the same letter as our name. At the time my vocabulary was woefully simple and all I could think of to say was “Veronica…Very.” Sad, I know.
Going back to the definition I can’t say that I’m a valetudinarian. The only word that seems a synonym is hypochondriac, but when I think of a hypochondriac I think of Danny Kaye as Danny Weems in the 1944 movie Up in Arms. That is definitely NOT how I see Mr. Woodhouse at all. It isn’t that Mr. Woodhouse thinks he’s forever contracting various illnesses, rather he’s an older gentleman convinced that wedding cake is unwholesome, that even a drawing of someone outside is worrisome to the health of the subject, that the beach cannot be good for anyone, and that nothing is so good for a person as a nice smooth gruel before bed.
I’m pretty sure Mr. Woodhouse is just lactose intolerant, and prefers a nice comfy reading chair to anything else. He strikes me as one of those people that isn’t really interested in doing anything because he likes his routine, but if you can get him to do something differently he will find that he enjoys it. Emma spends a good deal of her energies in managing his eccentricities. Maybe that is something like what everybody at Enscombe does with Mrs. Churchill. I can only imagine based of what has been said of her in Volume I of Emma.
Anyway, I’m not really sure I know any valetudinarians, but I’m glad I have this new word of the day to add to my list. I will find some way to use it, even if I have to talk more about Mr. Woodhouse.
What do you think of the word valetudinarian? Have you come across any words while reading that have intrigued you, words to add to your vocabulary?
*Photo: Vintage style wedding cake with bird cage stand by Victoria Made, obtained through Flickr.