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Pronounced /lɛksɪfˈfænɪk/Help with IPA

“The tinsel of Lexiphanic language in many places involves his argument in almost inextricable mystery, and pains whom it was intended to please, by making them toil for instruction, when an easy, natural communication was practicable.” Modern writers might take this as a motto or an awful warning to be posted above their desks. It was written by the US statesman William Pinkney in the early 1800s.

Lexiphanic means somebody who uses bombastic or pretentious language. It comes from the title of a dialogue that was composed by the Greek writer Lucian of Samosata in the first century AD. It is also the name of the character who was the subject of the satire in the dialogue, coined from lexis, word, and phainein, to show. So Lexiphanes was a phrase-monger, of whom another character, Lycinus (supposed to be Lucian himself) says in the dialogue, “There is not a doubt I shall go raving mad under the intoxication of your exuberant verbosity”. This may remind you of Benjamin Disraeli’s quip about William Gladstone: “A sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”.

Few people read Lucian today and even fewer would recognise the name of one of his characters. Two centuries ago, men and women of education were more familiar with the classics. In Dr Johnson and Fanny Burney, the latter wrote in surprise about the former: “How little did I expect from this Lexiphanes, this great and dreaded lord of English literature, a turn for burlesque humour!”

Page created 13 Jan. 2007

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Last modified: 13 January 2007.