Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Verbal Bullies

I pride myself on having an above average vocabulary—Earthlink posts a word of the day and I almost always know what it means—and a fair if by no means exhaustive knowledge of literary allusion.

So when Atlantic Monthly served up Torquemadaean as an adjective in an article about Iceland’s spas, I chalked this up as a pretentious obscurity, an in-joke between the writer and his editor. But then I came across it again—“teenage Torquemadas”—in a column by Steve Rushin in the Dec. 4 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Sports Illustrated. Granted, readers of this magazine exhibit a savant-like ability for calculating potential BCS Bowl configurations (I swear there’s still a way for Notre Dame to win the national championship). But Torquemada? If they know what the heck this is and I don’t, how dumb am I?

I bet the vast majority of SI’s audience glossed over the word and decided once and for all that no, Mr. Rushin is not “just one of the guys.” If I didn’t know that Rushin topped 6 feet, I would picture Mr. Smarty Pants as the proverbial 90-pound weakling, mercilessly bullied as a child, and now exacting revenge on the jocks of world through verbal intimidation. “You picked me last in gym class, now I will use really big words to make you feel really small. Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.”

Or maybe SI and Atlantic are part of a vast conspiracy to get us all to spend even more time Googling. Because you know that once challenged, I had to get to the bottom of Torquemada.

Turns out it refers to Tomas de Torquemada, Inquisitor General during the Spanish Inquisition. Oh, of course, that Torquemada. In the 500 years since, his name (in some circles, apparently) has become synonymous with torture. Kind of like writers who purposely wield language as a weapon.


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