It appears in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale KIng (2011), in the extraordinary last-class hortation spoken by a Jesuit substitute instructor of accountancy. He is speaking of the work of the accountant, which he describes as an surprising form of heroism:
‘Exacting? Prosaic? Banausic to the point of drudgery? Sometimes. Often tedious? Perhaps.’The American Heritage Dictionary (Wallace’s dictionary, in a way, as he was a member of its Usage Panel, from 1999 to his death) defines banausic thusly:
1. Merely mechanical; routine: “a sensitive, self-conscious creature . . . in sad revolt against uncongenially banausic employment” (London Magazine) .Webster’s Third gives a greater array of meanings:
2. Of or relating to a mechanic.
1a. governed by or suggestive of utilitarian purposes : practicalThe Oxford English Dictionary is terse: “merely mechanical, proper to a mechanic.” Webster’s Second is terser still and tart: “smacking of the workshop.” Sounds a bit like the Dowager Countess of Grantham.
b. common in taste, thought, or intention : dull and menial
2. moneymaking, breadwinning : vocational : commercially minded : materialistic.
Whence banausic ? The AHD is helpful:
Greek banausikos, of or for craftsmen, from banausos, craftsman who works with fire, smith, potter, probably dissimilated from earlier *baunausos : baunos, furnace, forge (probably of pre-Greek substrate origin) + auein, to light a fire, get a light from; akin to Latin haurīre, to draw water.Learning about banausic made me wonder: could banal be related? No, it had a different beginning. From the AHD:
Drearily commonplace and often predictable; trite: “Blunt language cannot hide a banal conception” (James Wolcott).So whatever is common to all (or, at least, to all tenants) is banal. Webster’s Second has a definition which heightens the element of contempt in the word: “showing no individual taste.” The Dowager Countess strikes again!
French, from Old French, shared by tenants in a feudal jurisdiction, from ban, summons to military service, of Germanic origin.
It is reassuring to those of us who can never decide how to pronounce banal that at least some members of the AHD Usage Panel share the problem: “A number of Panelists admitted to being so vexed by the word that they tended to avoid it in conversation.” Thank goodness this post is written, not spoken.
Did Wallace discover banausic by way of this William Safire column? I wonder.
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