Shibboleths in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Here’s the list of words I had to look up while reading Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road. It’s a post-apocalyptic fiction, and I think the abundance of obscure words like these (well, they’re obscure to me) represents an element of the novel’s style, a reflection on both the precarity of representation and the compulsion to preserve it for an uncertain posterity — through and after the imagined end of representation as such. Many of these words read as shibboleths — obscure, antiquated, out-of-use words — and their use in The Road mirrors their use in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, in which the protagonist tries to recall and preserve English words for a radically post-human future. The difference is that while Atwood’s protagonist explicitly reflects on his archiving and on the fate of representation, McCarthy’s differently focalized narrative simply includes them, unremarked, so that they are left to stand and signify what they will, or won’t, like the numerous other emptied relics that litter The Road‘s wasted landscape. The effect is to put the reader in the protagonist’s shoes, reading one stark monochromatic field after another, in search of meaning, signs of life.

bollard, n.
breakfront, n.
catamite, n.
chary, adj.
chert, n.
chifforobe, n.
claggy, adj.
clerestory, adj.
collet, n.
cognate, n.
crozzled, adj.
dentil, adj.
discalced, adj.
dolmen, adj.
duff, n.
entabled, adj.
fescue, n.
godspoke, adj.
hydroptic, adj.
intestate, adj.
isocline, n.
isthmus, n.
kerf, n.
krugerrand, n.
lampblack, n.
lave, v.
loess, n.
paling, n.
palisade, n.
pampooties, n. pl.
piedmont, n.
pipeclayed, adj.
quoits, n.
rachitic, adj.
salitter, n.
scarpbolt, n.
siwash, adj.
sleaving, n.
sloe, n.
slutlamp, n.
stanchion, n.
tang, n.
torsional, adj.
travois, n.
vermiculate, adj.
wimple, v.
woad, n.

3 responses to “Shibboleths in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

  1. You obviously didn’t take an intro to geology course as an undergraduate like I did. Many of the words are specific technical terms used to describe landscape and rocks.

    Others are Medieval or Native American terms.

    They simply show McCarthy’s desire for exact specificity without a regard for their lack of meaning to the general public.

    If you’d like to read another popular author who deals with the disastrous outcomes of society who loves obscure and obsolete words, I suggest Dean Koontz who is one of the few authors who drives me to a dictionary, and I know the meaning of more than 90% of the words listed above.

  2. An interesting take on the narrative. I am teaching the book this year so am actually preparing a list with definitions. Many words are technical (referring to specific tools, boots, etc. or indeed mediaeval. The use of clerestory for a boat is most odd (in my opinion). He knows the local dialect terms for plants, some of which are indeed of Native/First Nations origin.

    The lexis contrasts with the simplicity of the plot and the dialogue, where you could argue that the language spoken is the most important kind of all: an effort to keep the boy going, to preserve his optimism and ready him for his future — fending off the “bad” men. Often concepts are reduced to “bad”.

    I am just beginning to work with this text, but certainly the contrast between esoteric and exact terminology and the “bad” things shows what has been lost of civilisation. The sort of civilisation where an architectural detail or sailing term is significant has given way to marauding cannibals. Interestingly, neither the narrator nor the father describe in detail what has happened to destroy the animals and birds, cause firestorms, etc. We can guess of course. If you have any further thoughts, I’d be happy to hear them.

    • academicalism

      thank you for this thoughtful comment (it’s never too late to critically discuss great literary works 🙂

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