Self-descriptive words, paradoxes, and David Foster Wallace

I have been collecting self-descriptive words ever since my college roommate introduced me to the concept. Actually, it would be more precise to say that I occasionally try to remember as many self-descriptive words as possible and then forget them, always failing to keep an ongoing list. As a mathematician, my roommate was frequently presenting me with various paradoxes (although this interest in paradoxes ultimately seems to have more to do with my roommate and our relationship than it does with math). One day, he presented me with a version of Russell’s paradox (it’s also a version of the Grelling-Nelson paradox):

Imagine a set S containing all the words that describe themselves. This set would include words like “English,” “polysyllabic,” and “vowelled” – words whose definitions apply to the words themselves. These self-descriptive words are “autological.”

Now imagine a set N containing all the words that do not describe themselves. This set includes most words: “green” is not green, “long” is not long, etc. These non-self-descriptive words are “heterological.”

So, does the word “non-self-descriptive”/”heterological” go in set S or set N?

Mmmmm, paradox. A quick attempt to remember some of my favorite self-descriptive words yields the following (some of these are questionable, or perhaps a matter of taste, but I would choose to include them): monotonous, repetitive, polysyllabic, zany, fiesty, acceptable, elegant, daffy, ethereal, juicy, and vigorous. I would also want to give a nod to words like “parallel” that contain some element that reflects their meaning (in this case, the “ll”s are parallel).

You can imagine my excitement in discovering that David Foster Wallace cultivated a similar interest in words with a unique relationship to their own meanings. In her recent account of a trip to visit Wallace’s archives at the Ransom Center (well worth reading for entirely different and more pertinent reasons), Maria Bustillos includes a quiz that Wallace gave to his students:

WIN A LUNCH WITH DAVE, SPARKLING CONVERSATIONALIST, WELL-MANNERED EATER, BY SIMPLY IDENTIFYING WHAT ALL THE FOLLOWING WORDS HAVE IN COMMON:

Foreign
Big
Diminutive
Incomprehensible
Untyped
Pulchritude
S-less
Unwritten
Indefinable
Misspelled
Vulgar
High-class
Invisible
Unvowelled
Obscene

I will admit to reading the answer to the quiz on the wallace-l listserv and thus not figuring it out for myself, but nonetheless, the answer struck a chord. In the words of Matt Bucher, “the quiz words are words that contradict themselves (pulchritude means beautiful but is an ugly word, ‘misspelled’ is not misspelled, foreign is not a foreign word, etc.). He talks about this in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus.” These words aren’t simply non-self-descriptive; they’re anti-self-descriptive.

Wallace’s interest in such words is perhaps not surprising given his exhaustive knowledge of and playfulness with language. Still, it’s interesting to consider his affinity for words that harbor a sort of inner tension and sense of self-contradiction in light of his life’s work, much of which attended to similar dynamics at play in our daily lives and in American culture generally. Perhaps the most redemptive aspect of Wallace’s writing – that is, the possibility for redemption he offers us in the face of this self-contradiction – comes in the attitude he adopts toward this dynamic, the sense that the contradictions that haunt us can, if not be fully resolved, at least subside in our connections with one another. The quiz captures all of this – the inner contradictions and sense of being not quite settled in one’s own skin (this goes for words, too), and yet a playfulness toward this condition and ultimately the possibility that our intimate familiarity with this dynamic might lead to quality time with the best company around.

Soon, I’d like to take up this theme with reference to The Pale King. Meanwhile, I’d enjoy hearing your additions to my list of self-descriptive words and Wallace’s list of self-contradictory words.

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