Friday, May 15, 2009


It must be the new hot word among intellectuals. It means theory or science of laws, from the Greek nomos meaning law or convention. I came across it the other day when trying to understand what supervenience means and consulted the online version of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Thus followed a search-for-a-word within a search-for-a-word—because I’d never consciously seen that word before. The use of the term, as I saw it in context, was insider talk among philosophers, people who routinely use a word like iff [sic] meaning “if and only if” and fully expect their readers instantly to get it. Now that one I got—but only because I have computers in my background and have been known to curl up, in pleasant anticipation, to enjoy books like Bjarne Stroustrup’s The Design and Evolution of C++. But as for nomology, which I took in stride once I understood it, I did not expect to encounter it ever again unless it was in one of those “if you don’t understand it you don’t belong here” contexts of academic discourse. Well! Three days later here’s the same word in a political magazine we rather enjoy around here, The American Conservative.

This immediately brought to mind a brief exchange we had with Michelle on the French word, la marotte, meaning “the fool’s scepter,” “fad,” “idée fixe,” “hobby.” She’d never heard the word and at first refused to believe that it was French. At last her dictionary cowed her. Then she said: “I swear I’ll probably encounter it four or five times in the newspapers over the next couple of weeks. That happens all the time, doesn’t it?”

Yes, it does. At least it happens to all the rest of us in Ghulfdom, and I expect that it’s a universal experience the root of which is probably banal, but I prefer to think of it as “significant” somehow. That’s how you separate the inwardly living from the dead. The former are romantics. I expect to see nomology next in the New York Times. And six months out Bill Saffire, in the New York Times Magazine, will give us the lowdown. These words start going around when they come around. Those who use them use them as badges of distinction, however dubious.

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