Jack Vance (1916-2013) was a writer of science fiction and fantasy novels, most famous for his "Dying Earth" books, but ridiculously prolific throughout his 64-year career. (For more than you probably care to read about why Vance is pretty great, you can't beat Eric Walker's page.) One hallmark of his style is the extravagant use of rare English words that the average reader could not possibly be expected to know. He uses these not to flaunt his intelligence or to obscure his meaning, but to create a sense of uncanny distance, as if one is not reading a novel but interpreting a discovered text. It's no coincidence that these words (and many more that are entirely invented by Vance*) are used to describe the activities of wizards, extra-dimensional beings, and godlike entities from the star Achernar somewhat more frequently than those of his protagonists.

The ebook reader I use has a nifty feature if I touch a word on the page for a few seconds, its dictionary definition instantly appears like magic, and furthermore that word is saved into a "Vocabulary Builder" program on the device, letting me later review every word I didn't understand. This turned out to be quite a lot of words.

This page lists every English term I looked up while reading Cugel the Clever, Cugel's Saga, The Green Pearl, and Madouc. (Words which I tried to define in vain, because Vance made them up, probably outnumber the ones listed here. However, they do not appear in the "Vocabulary Builder" program.) The contextual paragraphs are taken from TOTALITY, the Vance Vocabulary Search Tool, an astounding website that must be seen to be believed.

* For a selection of these, please see the page on Untranslatable Words.


To foreshadow vaguely. This passage, by the way, is a primo example of Vancean wizardspeak.

"You fail to understand the calamity you have visited upon me. I will explain, so that you may not be astounded by the rigors which await you. As I have adumbrated, the arrival of the creature was the culmination of my great effort. I determined its nature through a perusal of forty-two thousand librams, all written in cryptic language: a task requiring a hundred years. During a second hundred years I evolved a pattern to draw it in upon itself and prepared exact specification. Next I assembled stone-cutters, and across a period of three hundred years gave solid form to my pattern. Since like subsumes like, the variates and intercongeles create a suprapullulation of all areas, qualities and intervals into a crystorrhoid whorl, eventually exciting the ponentiation of a pro-ubietal chute. Today occurred the concatenation; the 'creature', as you call it, pervolved upon itself; in your idiotic malice you devoured it."


To unrightfully lay claim.

"Time is infinite, which is to say that every possible condition must come to pass. Since we reside in this particular possibility and know of no other, we arrogate to ourselves the quality of singleness. In truth, any universe which is possible sooner or later, not once but many times, will exist."


A royal judicial court, or a hearing at such a court.

"Today, Sire, if you recall, you sit at the assizes."


A beam.

Galgus meanwhile had tied the cord across the face of a horizontal six-foot baulk at the far end of the room. At the center he suspended a beef knuckle-bone upon which the dogs had been chewing, then returned to where his comrades stood watching.


Relating to the consumption of alcohol.

His enthusiasm for the visit had cooled, and he was especially reluctant to entertain his guests at a succession of long, bibulous banquets where King Milo, a noteworthy trencherman, and Queen Caudabil, only slightly less redoubtable, regaled themselves upon course after course of fine viands and great quantities of Castle Haidion's best wines.


A thicket or small wood. A wefkin is a self-important kind of fairy.

Madouc sidled from behind the foxgloves and approached the wefkin, who exuded a resinous odor, as if from crushed herbs and pine needles, mingled with bosk, pollen and musk.


Cheap or showy.

"And this brummagem 'Sir Pellinore' beguiled your mother with false entitlements!"


A barn.

Smoke issued from the chimney, and in the yard adjacent to the byre Aillas noted a dozen sheep and as many fowl.


A carriage where the top can roll down. "Taxicab" originally stood for "taximeter cabriolet."

The house grew cabriolet legs at the corners, each terminating in claws grasping a ball, so that the house stood at a secure height of sixty feet above the clearing.


Wasting away from a chronic illness.

Even as they watched, the sun, perhaps fortuitously, underwent a cachectic spasm, and lurched alarmingly toward the horizon.


A despicable wretch. Also, a piece in the game of Chess.

"In your case, you need only conquer this bezander with your caitiff, then march the arch-priestess forward to confront the serpent, and the game is yours."


To dress a horse or elephant (or cat) with ornamental coverings.

The cats were caparisoned with gay cloths, fine saddles and a variety of noble emblems, that they might serve as proper steeds for knightly rats, themselves well-trained and clad in shining mail and gallant helmets.



"I cannot occupy myself with casuistic distinctions," replied the elder.


To haggle or barter. Slur of "cheap fare."

Lamps hung in the trees and a variety of folk who preferred night to day came to stroll among the booths and to chaffer for articles which aroused their interest.


Same as "wary."

"Consequently, I delay. I am both wary and chary of disturbing what seems a stasis."


The mistress of a castle.

It appeared that someone, both cunning and deft, had purloined Womin's single remaining stocking and had affixed it to the crest of the chatelaine Batinka's elaborate coiffure, where it created a ridiculous and humiliating spectacle.


Bearing tentacles with nematocysts, like a jellyfish. An echinoderm, by the way, is basically a starfish, and a nudibranch is a sea slug.

A new thought occurred to Cugel. The creature displayed qualities reminiscent of both coelenterate and echinoderm. A terrene nudibranch? A mollusc deprived of its shell? More importantly, was the creature edible?


A light meal.

"You may serve me a light collation, if you will, as I breakfasted early."



Here, in fact, was his test, and the barons watched him with curiosity as he stood to the side with Tristano and Sir Helwig's herald, conning the list of those not on hand.


A dance of some kind.

"Never! Let us drink beer, quart for quart, while we dance the double coppola! The first to fall flat is the loser."


A metal cup, suspended from a pole, filled with burning pitch.

Tonight seemed to be a special occasion: everywhere cressets threw up plumes of flame, while the folk of Vull walked the streets, pausing to confer in small knots and groups.


The chest piece on a suit of armor.

He wore half-armour: a cuirass, greaves and a casque in the mold of a demon's head, with a crest of three black plumes.


To leap about or frolic.

"Oh la! The suns of Tanjecterly neither rise nor set; they curvet in graceful rounds about the sky."


Payment for a job.

Cugel became conscious of Firx's fretful stirrings. "And as to the emoluments?"



The blue point of light glittered from the site of Faroli, far to the north in Dahaut: so much for one of his suspicions, that the woman at his side might even be a guise of the epicene Tamurello; this was clearly not the case.


An officer responsible for the care of horses. Rakehelly, incidentally, means "wild or dissolute".

The two moved to the side of the road, and the riders passed by: three rakehelly young noblemen, with three equerries riding at their backs.


Fine tin-glazed pottery.

The boy brought wine in a gray faience decanter decorated with blue and green birds, and a pair of squat faience goblets.


A temple.

"Go forth to do my bidding! Across the Silver Desert you must travel, to the shore of the Songan Sea! Here you will find a fane, before which you must abase yourselves. Go! Across the Silver Desert, with all despatch!"


Coarse twilled cotton.

He wore a doublet of russet fustian, with sleeves of puff-pleated black and red stuff. A jaunty red forester's cap sat aslant his head, with a raven's wing for a panache.


An evergreen shrub.

"If we killed them all, as many more would hop from the gorse to take their places, and all would be as before."


A lad.

"Sire, the difficulties in Wysrod are many! The gossoons are like specters; we chase them over tussock and bog; we bring them to bay; they melt into the Wysrod mists, and presently attack our backs, with yells and screams and insane Celtic curses, so that our soldiers become confused."


A person of high rank. Comes from mispronounced Spanish "grande."

"Tonight Tamurello is an austere grandee, but he is not here. He noticed his crony, Visbhume, and took him outside, and neither has returned."


A heavy cable used to tow or moor a ship (or ferry)

The ferry, attached to the hawser by a bridle and a sheave rolling along the hawser, was propelled by reason of the slant of the hawser. When the tide ebbed the ferry was taken south; when the tide was at flood, the ferry was driven north across the river. A half-mile to the west, another hawser slanted in the opposite direction, so that with each change of the tide, the ferries crossed the Cambermouth in opposite directions.


A headman.

A single blow on the back of the head was enough; the hetman toppled into a ditch. Cugel was instantly upon him, and with deft fingers took his keys.


A knee-length tunic.

Their dress was modest: white linen kirtles and sandals, and none bore arms.


A fully-loaded pigeon, in this case.

"My lord, a pigeon in lading has returned to the west cote."


You know those battlements when you imagine the top of a castle? The part that sticks up is the merlon.

He stood on the battlements, looking out across the Skyre, one foot in an embrasure and leaning against the lichen-stained merlon.


Menacing. (Not to be confused with monitory, below.)

Quick movements of the head, darting brown eyes, with a lean hooking nose and a cynically curling mouth, gave him a look of minatory vigilance.


In warning. (Not to be confused with minatory, above.)

There were less desirable prospects, thought Cugel, and Firx, appreciating something of this, performed a small monitory constriction.


A dreamer or fool. Also, a miscarriage supposedly caused by the baleful influence of the moon.

"When the voyage goes well, then any mooncalf is bright and merry; he dances a jig and plays the concertina, and everyone thinks: 'Oh, for the life of the worminger!'"


A conquistador-style helmet. A corselet is basically a cuirass.

Into the plaza came Bubach Angh, accoutered in military wise, with corselet, morion and sword.


Not a real word.

"The Winged Beings are denizens of this dark world and their ultimate nature is unknown. They serve the Great God Yelisea in this fashion: whenever comes the time for man or woman to die, the Winged Beings are informed by a despairing signal from the dying person's norn. They thereupon descend upon the unfortunate and convey him to their caves, which in actuality constitute a magic opening into the blessed land Byssom."


Resembling a serpent.

His face was pale and disturbing; strangely wide cheekbones with round gray eyes and a small thin-lipped mouth gave him an almost ophidian semblance.


A set of principles of a philosophy.

Bluner began a detailed exposition of his organon, but before long was interrupted by Pralixus, a tall thin man with piercing green eyes.


A comprehensive work.

"The Fourteenth Garth Haxt of Slaye was a diligent collator, and compiled a voluminous pandect on the subject."


A cute name for a cup.

To the side he arranged the meat on a spit, where it might roast and drip into the pannikin, with Tatzel turning the spit as needful.


A courtly processional dance.

We will dine on the terrace under five hundred ghost-lanterns; the viands will be exquisite, equally so the wines! The feast will proceed until midnight, to be followed by a pavane under the moon, to melodies of the utmost sweetness."



"I still must point out his oily skin and over-large buttocks; they indicate a bent for high living and even a tendency toward peculation."


Same as "durable."

"The point is well taken! However, the nexus is real but perdurable only so long as the wind allows."


A charm or amulet.

"One must be cautious in its use; and indeed, I have here an indispensable ancillary: a periapt in the shape of a ram's head, fashioned to the order of Emperor Dalmasmius the Tender, that he might not injure the sensibilities of any of his ten thousand concubines..."


A harbinger.

"Indeed, sir! Dreams are prodromes of future truth! They provide bodes which we ignore to our risk!"


Having a projecting jaw.

"In any event, Madame Soldinck is neither young nor beautiful. Indeed, she is plump and squat. Her face is prognathous and she wears a faint black mustache."


Relating to or consisting of pus.

"Of the nine worlds I warn against Paador, Nith and Woon; Hidmarth and Skurre are purulent places infested with demons. Cheng may well be home to the sandestins, but this is uncertain, while Pthopus is truly insipid. Only Tanjecterly will tolerate human men."


Sort of a radish thing.

The fire crackled cheerfully; they ate a breakfast of rampion and pulpy black gallberries, while Cugel put questions regarding the lands to the east and south.


To regret or complain.

His touch causes damsels to sigh and repine.


A screen behind the altar in a church.

Queen Sollace made a petulant sound. "But I do not care to do this! In fact, I would wish to add another five yards to its length, and also augment the curve here, at the back of the apse! We would gain scope for a truly splendid reredos!"


A lively dance from medieval Italy.

"False modesty is not befitting to a worminger," said Drofo. He played and simultaneously danced three hornpipes and a saltarello.


An incorrect usage of language.

"As a traveler from afar, ignorant of your customs, I thought it best to watch quietly a few moments, lest in error I commit a solecism."


A small copse or wood.

By the light of the afterglow Aillas made camp in a little spinney of mountain larch, and on this evening for their supper they dined upon Torqual's preserved goose.


The person on a ship responsible for the cargo.

"Unfortunately, a single post is open at the moment, that of supercargo aboard the Galante, for which I already have a qualified applicant, namely Bunderwal."


A strap that keeps something attached to a horse.

"Perhaps I shall marry Devonet, who is very pretty and remarkably dainty, though a trifle sharp of tongue. She berated me bitterly one day in regard to a loose surcingle."


A low stool or stand.

"At this location I will require a taboret with provision for chilling wines."


Alternate spelling of taboret.

He walked gingerly to a window and peered into a hall draped in pale gray, containing only a tabouret on which, under a glass bell jar, lay a dead rodent.


A statue of a man used as a support pillar. A dudely Caryatid.

Telamons of exaggerated elongations and grotesquely distorted visage supported the smoky beams; a rich rug of green concentric circles on a black ground covered the floor.


Muscle or sinew.

By night he surrounded himself and his horse in the Expansible Egg, a membrane impermeable to thew, claw, pressure, sound and chill, and rested at ease despite the avid creatures of the dark.


The plural form of "turf." Really.

Fuel was an item of expense; the bedroom where King Gax lay dying was warmed only minimally by a mean little smoulder of turves.


A winch used for lifting heavy weights, in this case that of a hanged man.

Zerling glanced over his shoulder. "It is not my place to notice, nor to ask, nor to remember. I lop heads and heave at the windlass; still, when I go home of nights I am a different man and cannot so much as kill a chicken for the pot."


Flexible twigs or shoots.

Liba, groping behind her, found a broom of tied withes which she lifted and held ready.