Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Word of the day: banausic

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) .
2. Of or relating to a mechanic.
Webster’s Third gives a greater array of meanings:
1a. governed by or suggestive of utilitarian purposes : practical
b. common in taste, thought, or intention : dull and menial
2. moneymaking, breadwinning : vocational : commercially minded : materialistic.
The 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.

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).

French, from Old French, shared by tenants in a feudal jurisdiction, from ban, summons to military service, of Germanic origin.
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!

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.

Related reading
All OCA DFW posts (Pinboard)

comments: 2

Fresca said...

Nor exactly relevant, but QI? ["Quite Interesting"... though not really even that]:
Last night at hospice, I was sitting next to a relative of the dying man, and we got talking about how lonely freelance work is.
The relative said, "I spend so much time alone, I even look forward to meeting with my accountant!"

Michael Leddy said...

Makes me think of grad school (at least some of it): at a desk, or in the library, hours, hours.