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word of the day: pachydermatous

pachydermatous (M-W)

adj [deriv. of Gk pachys + dermat-, derma skin] 1: of or relating to the pachyderms 2 a: thick, thickened <~ skin> b: callous, insensitive

Walter William Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (2nd ed., 1893) notes that pachyderm is an abbreviation of pachydermatous. In usage the word most often refers to elephants, tapirs, and other “Pachydermata.” William Dickey Gunning (Life History of Our Planet, 1876), uses the term to describe a people and thereby demonstrate (and argue in favor of) Natural Selection:

In a certain part of the valley of the Quillabamb in South America, mosquitos appear in such prodigious multitudes as to make life, to thin-skinned Mammals, almost insupportable. Tribes of men seem to have been exterminated or driven into regions less infested. The few men and women who live there and withstand this cloud of buzzing lances, are found to have thick, mosquito-proof skins. How came this semi-pachydermatous race? Certainly not from a semi-pachydermatous, mosquito-proof Adam, created there ont he banks of the Quillabamba. They must have been differentiated from an ancestry with average skins. And this must have been brought about by intensifying and fixing what was at first a mere variation. A man or woman appeared, more mosquito-proof than others. This person with thickened skin had the advantage over his fellows. His vitality was not drained away by mosquito bites. His offspring were vigorous, and like himself, a little pachydermatous. The most pachydermatous among them had the best chance, and so it was in the next generation, and the next, and the next. Thick skins and thicker skins were multiplying with each generation until the whole tribe became thick-skinned.

Such an adjective of course has its metaphoric use value. Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (which I never finished but somehow managed to pass an essay test over in high school), employs it proverbially: “Many besides Angel have learnt that the magnitude of lives is not as to their external displacements, but as to their subjective experiences. The impressionable peasant leads a larger, fuller, more dramatic life than the pachydermatous king.” Kipling, in The Jungle Book, jocularly: “Pachydermatous Anachronism.” Keats, dialectically: “A man cannot have a sensuous nature and be pachydermatous at the same time, and if he be imaginative as well as sensuous, he suffers just in proportion to the amount of his imagination.”

My encounter with pachydermatous, which sent me to the dictionary, occurred last night while reading The Golden Bowl: “She saw herself in this connexion without detachment—saw others alone with intensity; otherwise she might have been struck, fairly have been amused, by her free assignment of the pachydermatous quality.” In retrospect, because it is rather obvious, I ought to have been able to work out its meaning, but in this case context and etymology colluded against me.

 

Comments

You read Tess in high school? I don’t think we read anything in high school, though I could be wrong—I’ve tried to block so much of it out.

If you mean by “read,” “didn’t read,” then yes. Near the end of the spring semester, as I recall; I wasn’t at all interested in it. Whoever names a dude Angel?

I’ve since grown up. Some.