I was in third grade the first time I heard it. My mother had given me a new book for my birthday; its condition was still such that I felt guilty turning the crisp, perfectly bound pages. I pored over the novel until I finished it, stumbling over every carefully chosen syllable. The vocabulary was far beyond even that of an advanced third grader or her accompanying dictionary, so I had to seek out the dusty crimson Webster’s edition that lived like a prize in our living room. It was there that I was introduced to it. Sesquipedalian.
It was rather ironic to me that the longest word I’d yet to read happened to mean “characterized by the use of long words.” At first glance (in the mind of a third grader, of course) I had pictured a kind of Martian, a Sesquipid alien with googly eyes hanging from its long purple antennae. And although this was not the case, I was relatively satisfied by its Latin etymology: sesquipedalis, which means quite literally “a foot and half long.” I giggled at the thought of the word reaching off the page and extending eighteen inches into space, wrapping itself around the dictionary and extracting the juiciest words into the air.
I cannot say that at nine years of age I was truly a sesquipedalian. I had a fascination with language and words, but my understanding and sophistication was relatively limited. The most complicated novels I had explored to then were the Harry Potter series; my classmates were astounded when I used such simple words as “tenacious” and “epitome” (two of my favorites at the time). But as my classmates caught up with me, I was forced to discover new gems to show off in conversation: serendipitous, ecclesiastic, supercilious, defenestration. Each addition made me eager to experience new language and literature.
To this day, as I devour each of my favorite books, I look for the grandest and most unusual words: words that will someday impress fancy folks at cocktail parties and give the semblance of an interminably sophisticated education. For now these words are kept pent up in a storage site, leaking only once in a while into my everyday conversations. Yet as my collection continues to accumulate more verbal oddities, I feel that I am becoming worthy of my word-loving title.
Unfortunately, the word “sesquipedalian” no longer brings me the humorous images and ideas that entertained me as a nine-year-old, yet it still manages to bring me joy. It reminds me of my determination to be well-read and well-versed; to bask continuously in the delight of language and learning. In it I find the comfort of the person I have always been and the unfamiliarity of the person I will become; it joins the two in a harmonious, ubiquitous present.
Perhaps I will develop into an unencumbered artist, or perhaps a magnanimous philanthropist. I may be perspicacious or idiosyncratic or convivial; I could change the world in one colossal moment or with copious little things each day. With my vocabulary, I have learned how to describe all the intimidating and electrifying possibilities that exist for me, but there are also parts of my self that I have understood – eccentricity, fastidiousness, sentimentality, earnestness – and that I would never have been able to realize if I weren’t such a sesquipedalian. Although the scarlet Webster’s dictionary has since become superfluous with the advance of technology, I still open it sometimes and turn the delicately crinkled pages to see where it all began. Sesquipedalian.