There’s an adage about writing that teachers often scribble in the margins of student papers: Never use a big word where a smaller one will do.
But Tom Stone ’95 knows one educator who would have thought otherwise: J. E. L. Seneker, his first cousin, five times removed, and author of a series of letters, compiled into a book in 1906, called Frontier Experience or Epistolary Sesquipedalian Lexiphanicism from the Occident.
“I guarantee this book is unlike any you have ever seen,” says Stone.
The book has become something of a family treasure and a family joke, but it’s also a one-of-a-kind work, and “the deliberately obnoxious, sometimes baffling, and completely frustrating choices of words make it so,” he adds.
Last year, Stone breathed new life into the quirky “epistolary” when he used the self-publishing service Lulu.com to produce a newly edited edition—the 102nd anniversary edition, as he named it, with a wink and a nod to Seneker’s offbeat sense of humor.
Seneker, who lived from 1848 to 1916, was an educator and school superintendent in northeastern Tennessee. But he was also clearly something of a prankster as well. He wrote the letters while on a trip out West in 1872. But it’s the wording, and not the content of the letters, that make the book.
For example, Seneker writes: “I onerated my dorsal part with a portmanteau for the vectitation of my habiliments.” Fortunately, Seneker provided a glossary on each opposite page; otherwise, readers might miss that he carried on his back a leather bag, heavy with all of his clothing.
Most of the words Seneker used are authentic English words. Others, however, are neologisms, Stone says. “A few of the words he made up based on Latin roots. They wouldn’t have been in the Oxford dictionary of his day,” he explains.
Stone, a philosophy major at Rochester who also founded the online philosophy resource EpistemeLinks.com, does not expect the book, which is available at Amazon.com, to make any bestseller lists. But he believes it would appeal to a certain set of people, such as those who enjoy word games. Although he briefly studied Greek and Latin at Rochester and in a year of graduate school at Ohio State, he finds his own interest in the book derives more from his enthusiasm for Scrabble and wordplay.
It’s a mental exercise in other ways, however. Comprehending a sentence takes more than one reading—a bit like trying to make one’s way through Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, quips Stone, referring to one of the major texts of existentialism.
It was also a curiosity to some of his colleagues at Element K, a Rochester e-learning company where Stone is a strategic planner. Several of his colleagues helped him with graphic production, as well as transcription, since his scanner couldn’t read the original typeface.
But the book also proved a challenge to his Microsoft Word program. Once he had transcribed the book into Word, so many words were tagged as unrecognizable that the program stopped its telltale error sign—the red underline—and sent him a single error message. “It almost crashed my program,” Stone says.
And in that, lies another interesting facet of the book: It shows, above all else, how much language changes, and how few of its available words we ultimately use.