Stickybeak’s Lexicon…..ergodic panoptic salmagundi!

I haven’t opened the vault of Stickybeak’s Lexicon for some time, so here is a triple offering to restore the balance.

I’m currently reading  Lemprière’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk. This author performs some of the most audacious vocabular gymnastics I have ever seen, worthy of a gold medal at any writing Olympics. The novel ties together three historical events: the emergence of the East India Company at the start of the 17th century; the siege and eventual burning of La Rochelle under the direction of Cardinal Richelieu; and the publication of  John Lemprière’s dictionary of classical mythology. I have taken to reading this mighty book with a dictionary close to hand; I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve been reaching for it frequently. I’ve worked out that Lawrence Norfolk was in his late twenties when he wrote this novel. I’ve no idea where or how someone that age can have grasped hold of quite so many words; he probably didn’t go to my school. But I’m glad he made the effort because otherwise I wouldn’t have picked up this trio of beauties.

ergodic panoptic salmagundi.’ That’s how they appear on the page; one after the other, in a single, amazing sentence: ‘and now, from this perspective at least, the whole ergodic panoptic salmagundi appears blindingly, abundantly clear’. Or not so clear. For a moment I thought the book’s language had changed; that, or my babel fish had jumped out of my eye. I reached for the dictionary (kindle version: so much lighter to balance on your knee) and started work.

Ergodic. This word is obscure enough to appear neither in my Oxford Encyclopedic Hardback nor my Chambers Concise. But it does crop up in my Kindle Oxford Dictionary of English.

ergodic. adj. (Mathematics) relating to or denoting systems or processes with the property that, given sufficient time, they include or impinge on all points in a given space and can be represented statistically by a reasonably large selection of points.

So far, so good. I think.

Panoptic. This one clearly has something to do with ‘all things’ or ‘everything’. The ‘pan’ bit kind of gives it away.

panoptic. adj. showing or seeing the whole at one view: a panoptic aerial view. From the Greek panoptos ‘seen by all’.

It was from looking up this word that I realised I knew it already because I had read about the panopticon, which historically was a circular prison with cells arranged around a central well, from which prisoners could at all times be observed. And believe it or not, it was only yesterday when I first encountered the word. I was reading a children’s novel, Phantom of Blood Alley by Paul Stewart; one of his Barnaby Grimes series of books about a Victorian era teenage sleuth.  In it, a society Lady is imprisoned in a panoptican (sic), which, according to Barnaby, is a ‘prison, built to a revolutionary design based on the beliefs of Jeremy Hobholt’. It was ‘octagonal in shape, three stories in height and with a central viewing platform from which the warders could observe the inmates’. According to my research (Wikipedia. I’m short on time, okay?) the panopticon was actually designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. Surname aside, I’d say Paul Stewart’s description was spot on. Here’s a handy diagram to help you visualise:

Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.

And here’s a photo of an actual panoptic prison:

Panopticon (google images)

Isn’t it strange? You don’t see a word for over forty years, and then it comes along twice in two days in two completely different book forms. The fact that it was in a book on both occasions proves further that if you want to learn, read.

Finally there is salmagundi. This one had me stumped, although now I think about it, it seems a bit more obvious.

salmagundi  n. 1 a dish of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions and seasoning.

2 a general mixture; a miscellaneous collection.

The origin of this word is french, although don’t you think it could equally be one of those Indian words for a foodstuff consumed by Raj-era colonials?

Those kind people at google images have provided this delicious image to aid our understanding:

Salamagundi. Looks more like a Chef’s Salad to me.

This one looks more like what I had in mind. Much more exotic!

And so there you have it. An ergodic panoptic salmagundi. Or, to put it another way, an all-encompassing, missing nothing, covering all bases, mixture. But why say it that way when you can delight and educate your reader with a veritable salmagundi of words.

Do you see what I did there?

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