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In an introduction to “Classic Crimes: A Selection from the Works of William Roughead,” Julian Symons says that Roughead’s “fanciful and elaborate” writing style seems “a true reflection of his twinkling, self-mockingly pedantic personality.” Symons continues:

“When he says ‘viciously to intromit with such a one’ … he knows perfectly well that we shall have to look at the dictionary to discover that ‘viciously to interfere’ would have said the same thing. Or would it have been quite the same thing? I should defend this extreme bit of Rougheadism by claiming that the fancy phrase says something to us about the enormity of Burke’s and Hare’s crimes that the plain one would not. I enjoy similarly the flourishes of such words as ‘cautelous’ and ‘homologated’ which have fallen into undeserved desuetude, and appreciate the humor of a phrase like ‘it is, or ought to be, luciferious.’ ”

I found cautelous in a 1944 edition of The Winston Dictionary, and even there it was labeled “obsolete.” It means “cautious, crafty, wily.” Homologated (“approved, ratified”) and luciferous (“bringing or providing light” and “providing insight or enlightenment”) can be found in newer dictionaries, although, as Symons says, both have fallen into disuse.

Roughead was born in 1870 and died in 1952, which means he did most of his writing at a time when some of these words mightn’t have seemed as odd as they do today. Still, you’re inclined to agree with Symons that he deliberately sought out the less familiar. That inclination, and the fact he was from Edinburgh, both probably influenced his first sentence in “Classic Crimes” — “When douce Mr. Thomas Ogilvy brought his young bride home to Glenisla his mother doubtless hailed the event as of happy augury for the house of Eastmiln.”

Random House says douce is found in Scotland and Northern England. It means “sedate; modest; quiet.”

I too enjoy flourishes, as when Roughead says of the beard of a 19th century murderer that “it might be plausibly maintained that no man so heavily handicapped with hair could be otherwise than wicked, the umbrageous growth in question, like the fabled Upas Tree of Java, blighting all within its baleful shade.” They don’t write ’em like that anymore.


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