Etymology: French, from past participle of manquer to lack, fail, from Italian mancare, from manco lacking, left-handed, from Latin, having a crippled hand, probably from manus
: short of or frustrated in the fulfillment of one’s aspirations or talents — used postpositively <a poet manqué>
During my perusal of the August 27th New Yorker, I came across the word manqué in two different articles, which struck me as noteworthy as I don’t think I have come across this word in several years. A quick search of the New Yorker archives indicates that besides these two recent uses, one in a snarky article about Nicolas Sarkozy by Adam Gopnik:
“People close to Sarkozy like to say that he is an American manqué….”
and the other in a fawning review of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film opus by Anthony Lane:
“This is not to say that the Italian was a novelist manqué.”
the word had been used in an April review of a Richard Gere film, and prior to that had not appeared in the pages of The New Yorker since September of last year, in a short story by Henry Roth.
Occasionally an unusual word achieves a brief period of fashionability due to its rarity, such as was the case with the term disestablishmentarianism, and its dopplegänger anti-disestablishmentarianism, a few years back. Once it is recognized that such a word has become le mot juste in just too many instances, however, it quickly recedes back into obscurity, like boy bands and one hit wonders.
Playing with The New Yorker archives reveals similarly suggestive, if not definitive, phenomenological gold about the way rare words become popular for a brief time, and then go underground for a year or more. Try, for instance, a search on sartorial, zeitgeist, or pusillanimous. A more interesting project, of course, would involve sifting through the archives of several high-brow publications and graphing the frequency of rare words. What a memetic field day that would be.
Perhaps this is peculiar to me, but I feel sometimes that using a given word more than once in a blue moon is already an overuse. Such is my feeling about swearing, which should be used judiciously in order to achieve maximum impact, as well as my feeling about obscure words. Obscure words, used judiciously, demonstrate erudition and good taste. Rare words, when abused, simply demonstrate boorishness, false eloquence, and a supercilious character, as well as a proclivity toward intellectual bullying. That’s fucked up.
My sense that the obscure should be kept obscure does not pertain to words alone. In the early 90’s I came across an anecdote while watching Star Trek: Next Generation called the frog and the scorpion, which was ascribed to Aesop. In the version I heard, a scorpion asks a frog to take him across a river and after much deliberation and rationalization, the frog finally agrees. Unfortunately, the scorpion does decide to sting the frog midstream, after all, and when the frog asks why, the scorpion replies, “It is my nature.” The punchline is that they both drown.
Oddly I came across the same anecdote again, a few weeks later while watching Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia deliver a speech on the Senate floor. It probably was over an important international event, but I only remember the anecdote and no longer recall what the anecdote was meant to illustrate. What was interesting about Senator Byrd’s version is that he ascribed the story to Chaucer, rather than Aesop.
A while after that (was it months or years?) the anecdote came before me once again in another Star Trek franchise, Voyager, except this time it was described as a Native American myth and was told by the space-faring Indian Commander Chokote, and the protagonists were now a coyote and a scorpion rather than a frog and a scorpion.
A little research indicates that this particular anecdote may have originally been revived from its antique sleep in the movie The Crying Game, before it made its way through public policy papers, senate speeches, and finally into televised science fiction, where I came across it.
The first time I heard it, I found it charming. The second time, I thought it platitudinous. The third time, I thought it was idiotic and vowed to boycott the next show, politician or foreign policy that attempted to leverage it in order to make a point. Such is my nature.
Then again, I recall Benjamin Franklin’s prescription that once one has found a word that works, it is unnecessary to go out of one’s way to find synonyms in order simply to avoid overusing the word in a given piece of journalism or essay. One should just reuse the word as often as one requires it — which is common-sensical advice, I must admit.