An Arcane, Ugly Word—and in the New Yorker

In his February 6 review of Gold, a new movie, New Yorker critic Anthony Lane says of the actor Matthew McConaughey,  “I always reckoned that nothing else could match his refulgent tan, although my theory slumps at the sight of Kenny Wells, McConaughey’s character in Gold, who is pale and sweaty, with a paunch the size of a medicine ball and a hairline that has long since sounded the retreat.”

His refulgent tan? Does that mean ugly?

No, the dictionary says it means “shines very brightly.”

I think the legendary New Yorker editor Harold Ross would have written on the galley, as he liked to do, “What the hell do you mean?”

And along with sending most readers to the dictionary, refulgent sounds ugly, a close relative of repugnant.

Robert E. Wolverton Sr., a classics professor at Mississippi State University, sometimes asks his students to vote on the ugliest words in English. His last list included vomit, putrid, puke, phlegm, snot, scab, and mucus. If his students had ever heard of refulgent, they might have included it.

At the Washingtonian, I often edited out what I thought were ugly words, especially anything to do with bodily functions, avoiding any vomiting, farting, or defecating.

Two years ago, I wrote about a Washington Post book review lede on the front page of the Style section. It was about the novel, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, that opens with helicopters evacuating the last Americans from Saigon as the war was ending. The reviewer wrote:

“Forty years ago this month, after a long, deadly release of flatulence from American politicians, the United States evacuated its personnel from Saigon in an operation appropriately code-named Frequent Wind.”

I would have killed the lede not only because of the flatulence but also because the end of that war was one of the saddest times in American history and it appeared the writer was joking about it.

I asked Tom Kunkel, author of Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker, if he thought Ross or William Shawn would have allowed that lede in the New Yorker. “No,” he said, “that almost literally smells.”

Another longtime editor didn’t hate the lede as much as I did: “It might have worked if the story subject were light, but the last days in Vietnam were anything but.”

A dissent from a younger editor I worked with who doesn’t remember the Vietnam war so vividly: “This doesn’t bother me so much because of the Frequent Wind joke (and the politeness of the word ‘flatulence’). It’s funny—but I remember your distaste for such words.”
Professor Wolverton’s beautiful words included love, eloquent, faith, serendipity, epiphany, lullaby, beauty, and grace.


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    I take your other points, but I don’t mind being sent to the dictionary. Decades ago, I read The New Republic cover to cover because I usually learned a new word each issue. FUSTY — a word that also sounds like what it means — I learned from a 2006 Dan Eggen Washington Post article.


    Dear Jack,

    I believe there is a difference between “funny” ~ which in my mind must contain a truth ~ and ironic, which is the cheapest form of bogus “humor” and depends on meaningless contradictory cleverness for its half-assed effect.

    There’s a lot of sophomoric irony in newspapers and TV news, but as the editors improve, irony becomes happily more rare.

    As for ugly and beautiful words:

    If one speaks the “bad” words above listed (puke, vomit, snot, scab etc.) without scorn or derision and with a mellifluous voice and musical inflection, several may sound quite OK, even nice, perhaps seductive (particularly to a Saxon).

    The English word “love”, for example, may seem to a Russian ear rather growlish and unpleasant, while the rather goofy sounding “Lou Blue” is a sweet whisper of love in a Russian ear.

    Some words which to our ear may seem beautiful may strike other listeners as vile and crude.

    One example is “yuppie” (the hairy 60s sort), which in English is kind of cute. In Russian, yuppie sounds like “yawp” which is roughly the same as f**k. When the Western cowboys sing”yippy yai-yeah kai-yeah” in America horse operas, there are snickers in Moscow.

    Alternatively, the loving “je t’adore” in French may sound a lot like a cursed “Shut the door!” to the English ear.

    There are writers of great merit who spend infinite wit on wordplay (Vladimir Nabakov is perhaps the best wordsmith of the last 150 years), and I don’t mind occasionally playing those games, but it gets stale fast for me, like too much icing on a crappy cake.

    If I were to chose my beautiful word: breath.

    My daughter Kate’s is lollipop.

    My grandson Oscar’s is pneumonultramircroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis


    • Peter N. Hillman says

      excellent points

      btw “effulgent” (radiant) arguably is as “ugly” as “refulgent” (great rhyming though), but, when intoned by W.C. Fields in the famous 1930’s movie “Poppy”:

      “what a gorgeous day-

      ….what efful-gent sunshine–

      …effful-gent sunshine—


      It was a day of this sort….

      -the McGillicuddy brothers-

      murdered their mother with an axe!”

      –the melodious and artistic drawl and inflection preserve the wonder of the world for eternity

  3. Barney–Surely, when you stated that Irony is “the cheapest form of bogus ‘humor’ and depends on meaningless contradictory cleverness for its half-assed effect” you meant it ironically.

    That honor has always belonged to “Puns.” The primary difference of course, there is clever and funny Irony, as well as terrible Irony, and only bad puns.

    The adaptive coloration of Ironic Detachment, for instance served David Letterman well during his career. I haven’t toted it up, but I suspect he made me laugh roughly the same number of times by being funny and by being ironic.

    And don’t get me started on your highhanded dismissal of all three types of Irony available to writers– dramatic irony, verbal irony, & situational irony.

    Perhaps you could update your feelings with a brief perusal of Jon WInokur’s “The Big Book of Irony.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestion that Grandkids always come up with the most beautiful things.


      Dear John,

      I must admit that it is difficult not to respond to your perspicacious comment with an underhanded ironic retort, but I have stifled that low urge.

      Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that some form of a rhetorical gadget called “irony” is a favorite of lame comedians, mostly in 5th through 7th grades, and that includes Letterman, whose comedic level, in my mind, is late private elementary school at best.

      To say one thing and mean another, to be “nice” when you mean to be mean, is, to my mind, boring.

      I’d be willing to bet that really funny “irony” is among the rarest of gems, and I’ve never seen one that I felt was worthy of notice.

      Who knows where “irony” first began? I suspect it was invented by a court jester who foolishly felt compelled to tell the monarch the truth but with words constructed in a way that might spare his tongue and his neck.

      Perhaps there is quintessential irony that rises from beyond the grave.

      In a cemetery in Princeton, New Jersey, there is a gravestone into which is carved: “I told you I was sick.”

      On a tombstone in Brooklyn are carved Fats Waller’s immortal words: “One never knows, do one?”

      The so-called Socratic irony ~ asking seemingly foolish questions, the answers to which expose the true foolishness of someone’s preconceptions ~ is rather a lot of fun, but I must bicker over the use of the word irony to describe the process. It is more akin to hypnotic suggestion, as Socrates might be first to verify.

      Situational irony is perhaps the most overused in media. The inevitable pictures of the mail trucks destroying mail boxes, the rusty Rust-o-leum cans, the neo-Nazi couples who discover they are Jewish, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

      I’ll stick with my opinion about irony for the nonce. As for puns. They are much under-rated, as any headline writer for the New York Post might agree. Nonetheless, there are in my opinion a few really good puns. Here’s one now circulating among our nation’s nine year olds:

      An old, slightly shabby string walks into a bar.

      The bartender says: “Sorry we don’t serve strings here.”

      The string walks outside and ties himself into a knot.

      He walks back in.

      The bartender says:

      “Are you the same string again?”

      The string says:

      “I’m a frayed knot.”


  4. Peter N. Hillman says

    sorry for the typos! Godfrey Daniel!

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