The autobiography of a once-famous British comedian and game-show host isn’t perhaps an obvious place to find oneself wrong-footed by obscure words and phrases but Bob Monkhouse’s contains a bunch which had me scurrying to the dictionary. Here in no particular order are some of them, to which I’ve appended definitions for any readers who may be as ignorant as I recently was:
nimeity (noun): an excess, redundancy, more than what is required.
inessive (grammatical case): indicates the state of being in or inside a location.
poco curante (adjective, sometimes written as a single word): nonchalant, relaxed in manner, aloof, apathetic, blasé, breezy.
autarky (noun): economic independence or self-sufficiency. “‘Autarky’ [says one authority] is invariably used pejoratively to mean self‐government in a manner condemned by the speaker. A regime is autarkic if it tries to be self‐sufficient by cutting off trade and intercourse with the rest of the world.”
catechumen (singular noun): in theology, a person who receives instruction in the Christian religion in order to be baptized; (loosely) a person learning the elementary facts, principles, etc. of any subject.
cantrip (noun): a magical spell of any kind, a mischievous or playful act, a trick.
tardive dyskinesia (noun phrase): a medical condition where the face, body or both make sudden, irregular movements which you cannot control.
Un tant soit peu (idiomatic French phrase): a little bit. (Monkhouse has this as ‘tant soi peu,’ which may be a printer’s or publisher’s error)
fulgently (adverb): bright, brightly, luminously, dazzlingly, radiantly, glowingly, incandescently, brilliantly.
ataraxy (noun): a state of serene calmness.
pithicoid (adjective): belonging or pertaining to the genus Pithecis and related genera, including the saki monkeys; (loosely) ape-like, monkey-like.
miasmic (adjective): characterized by an unpleasant smell, noxious, oppressive.
proceleusmatic (adjective): inciting, animating, encouraging, inspiring.
To see how Monkhouse deploys these words you’ll have to read his 1993 book for yourself — and it’s worth finding a copy if you can because it’s an extraordinary piece of work. To begin with, it’s a whole lot more honest than most such efforts. I’ve read quite a few of them and they tend to follow a pattern. First comes the family background with stiffly-posed photos of grandma and grandpa and blurry snaps of childhood holidays on beaches and on outings to the countryside. Then we have the early struggles in showbiz with attendant failures and disasters, which is always the most entertaining part of the book especially if the disasters are amusing in retrospect, and finally comes Success — and now the blinds tend to be drawn to protect the privacy of current spouses and children, and the book turns into a sort of c.v. with often-boastful accounts of hit shows and awards won accompanied by photographs of the star with their famous mates, being presented to royalty etc. People who seek fame and fortune on the stage or screen don’t usually do so because they want to hide their light under a bushel.
Monkhouse’s story broadly follows the pattern. His childhood was worse than most and his anecdotes are funnier, but his story is most interesting for its psychological self-analysis. When he was young Monkhouse was a bit of a shit… correction: he was a lot of a shit, lying, cheating, screwing around and so forth …..
“We are many of us foxes in youth [he writes], initially loyal only to self. We must be taught humility, consideration for others, the constant business of fair exchange, the development of such innate human qualities as modesty, honesty and fidelity. It’s the last of these, faithfulness to family and colleagues, allegiance to those who require it of me, that I’ve had the greatest difficulty in cultivating and which has consequently become as paramount to me as the display of his sense of humour to the person who has none. I had to invent, or perhaps manufacture, my own scruples. They were never built in when I was originally delivered. […] I have been so grateful to discover that, as one grows older, artificially assumed characteristics become real.”
By a sort of effort of will, and with the support of his second wife Jacqui, Monkhouse seems over the years to have turned himself into reasonably decent person — though of course we have only his word for it. Still, all credit to him for trying. So many people don’t.
I originally read the book because I was very interested in comedy and wordplay, though I never found Monkhouse laugh-out-loud funny. Clever, yes, but back in the day I preferred Benny Hill. I liked Monkhouse’s love of words, however, for as he himself put it:
“The English language is an adventure playground with a treasure hunt, full of puzzles to solve and silly meanings to be found.”
Indeed it is.
P.S. Monkhouse’s follow-up volume (Over the Limit, 1998) is less erudite, though I did notice the words squamulose and peripeteia lurking therein. There are more good showbiz anecdotes but rather too many descriptions of wining and dining in expensive places which, as with sex, is more fun to do oneself than to read about other people enjoying.