Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 28, 2016

Vocabulary Note: “President” as an Adjective

We favor the work of particular authors for many reasons: They tell memorable stories we enjoy, they portray fascinating characters or their view of the world resonates with us.

The best writers use language in powerful, often startling ways. We admire an author’s style, vocabulary and ability to construct well-crafted sentences.

Or skillful use of incomplete sentences.

I’m rereading Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 novel about the astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (of the Mason-Dixon Line fame).

Pynchon’s prose is … well, it’s his own: complex, eccentric, challenging. His vocabulary is extensive; one would say “encyclopedic,” if that weren’t both hyperbolic and a cliché. Having a dictionary handy when reading one of his novels is a good idea, and not merely an English dictionary, but French, Spanish, German, Russian and Polish ones, to name a few.

One expects the unexpected with Pynchon’s use of language, and on this reading, I noticed how he employed a common English word in a way that surprised me.

He’s describing a dinner scene among the Dutch colonists in Capetown, South Africa. In 1761, Mason and Dixon were there to observe the transit of Venus. Here’s the sentence describing the father of the household where Mason and Dixon were dining, Cornelius Vroom, sitting at the dinner table, smoking, with his wife and daughters, Mason and Dixon present.

“Cornelius, president inside his blue tobacco Fumulus, seems unaware of the tangle of purposes in the room.”

Typical English usage would have us write, “presiding,” yet “president” is a perfectly acceptable adjectival use of a word we typically think of as a noun.

I stopped and re-read the sentence a couple of times. “President” as an adjective had never occurred to me. Even ordinary words are freighted with uncommon power in skilled hands.

If you wonder about “Fumulus,” it means a thin cloud, like a veil. In Mason & Dixon, Pynchon capitalizes nouns at will, imitating common 18th-Century practice, since abandoned in formal English and left to writers of German.

© Brad Nixon 2016. Passage from Mason & Dixon © Thomas Pynchon 1997; Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1st ed., p. 79.

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