Marty Pertez's word power!

Media criticism.
Aug. 4 2006 6:11 PM

Marty Peretz's Word Power

Ultramontane. Chiliastic. Irredentist. Revanchism. And more!

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Journalists deride uncommon words as "$10 words" if simpler ones that convey the same meaning can be found. All 2,700 entries in C.S. Bird and Associates'Grandiloquent Dictionary qualify as $10 words, as do such gems as adipose, tarantism, kenspeckle, Feinschmecker, vilipend, and plenilune. The same goes for foreign phrases like a fortiori, comme il faut, a tergo, and preguntando se llega a Roma.

I know one writer so opposed to $10 words that he uses the short stories of Raymond Carver as his thesaurus lest the genuine thesaurus cause him to insert a high-price word into a piece. Don't get me wrong: I get a kick out of $10 words, too, and even use them now and again to make my pieces showier. But the psychic surcharge deters me from using them often enough to fall into the faux-erudition trap that bedevils undisciplined, rich writers like Martin Peretz, co-owner and editor-in-chief of the New Republic. He burns through $10 words and phrases like they're kindling. Peretz's latest exercise in word-bling arrives in the third paragraph of "Just Cause," his piece in the Aug. 7 New Republic. He writes: 

As for its successor, the ultramontane Sunni Hamas, and its even more chiliastic Shia half-ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, they do not want any accommodation or compromise, and they do not pretend to. [All emphasis in this article added.]

First, let's examine Peretz's use of chiliastic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a chiliast is one who believes Christ will reign on Earth for 1,000 years upon his return. Peretz may be using it as a stand-in for millenarian, but if so, he's not spending his money wisely by applying it to Muslims. It's just not (forgive me) le mot juste.

To my ears, ultramontane sounds like the title of the next Morrissey CD. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the ultramontanes as representatives of the Roman Catholic Church north of the Alps, and later as all residents north of the Alps. By Jefferson's time the word could also mean "beyond or belonging" to the other side of the mountain. If Peretz is saying Hamas now reports to the pope, I'd say a correction is in order. In any event, I hope the New Republic's exacting copy editors found a valid definition that squares with the context before signing off. Even if they did, the adjective does nothing for the sentence.

Perhaps Peretz went with ultramontane this week because he got a two-for-one discount on it three years ago, when he wrote his Feb. 3, 2003, diarist ("Manque"), and the spare was spoiling in his refrigerator. But I don't understand the word in the context of his 2003 piece, either. He writes:

Aside from those extreme-nationalist nostalgics on the aging Vichyite and ultramontane right, there is little anti-Semitism among French conservatives today.

It's well-established that when Peretz starts swooning for a word or foreign phrase, he can't stop. He fell for mirabile dictu back on March 25, 1996, took another tumble with it on March 14, 2001, and got frisky with it again on Dec. 30, 2002. Like a drunk on a bender, he used schadenfreude twice in two months last year—Feb. 28, 2005, and April 11, 2005—after having already published it in April 22, 2002.

Good writers—even rich ones—limit themselves to one deus ex machina every three years, but not Peretz. See his pieces from 2003, 2004, and 2006. I enjoy good corpus separatum as much as the next guy—my family used to roast one every Christmas for dinner. But Peretz has no business describing Jerusalem as a potential corpus separatum twice inside a year (May 31, 1999, and April 10, 2000). And while you should see your dentist regularly, any writer who uses irredentist or its cousins as frequently as Peretz (Nov. 13, 1995; July, 7, 1997; July 11, 2005, Sept. 5, 2005) should improve his word hygiene.

Where Peretz learned to write like this is a mystery. To my ears it sounds like Stalinists abusing Trotskyists or Trotskyists abusing Stalinsts, and Peretz may merely be parroting the ancient lingo for sentimental reasons. In those days, one of the best ways to express hatred of your political foes was with word bombs like these.

Although tone deaf, Peretz ain't blind. He reads his critics and sometimes even accepts their advice. Back in 1991, I pilloried him in the Washington City Paper for—among other things—using the word perfervid five times in 40 columns. He removed the word from his forward arsenal and stored it in his Cambridge munitions dump but couldn't resist its call. A decade later he returned it to active duty for an Oct. 15, 2001, column.

He didn't use it once, but twice inside of four words.

****** 

Around the New Republic office, Peretz loves to yodel the words revanche and revanchism, but I can find only one instance of him using it in a piece (Aug. 7, 1995). Back in 1979, he dismissed the content of The Nation as reflexively gauchiste, which The Nation wanted to take as an insult but couldn't decode. Finally, to prove that I'm not a word prig, here's a bundle of Martywords I chose not to ridicule: redivivus; feuilletonists; scholia; epiphenomenon; meliorist; prelapsarian; citoyen; satyagraha; particularist; and eradicationalists. Send your favorite Peretzism to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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