Word of the Week (164): NEMATIC (probability 3118), by David Sutton

There are obscure words, and then there are what I call super-obscure words. Obscure words present the Scrabble player with a challenge, but it's a straightforward challenge: you look them up, you understand them, and then you remember them or you don't. Most of us, for example, probably don't know the word CRAIGFLUKE. So looking it up you find that no, it does not refer to our esteemed WESPA webmaster getting all the goodies again and having yet another jammy tournament win, but is a kind of flatfish. OK, we know what a flatfish is: the word may stick or it may not, and in this case it probably will.

But there are things a lot more slippery than fish, and with some words you really need a good grounding in a particular area of knowledge before you can even understand the definition. These are my 'super-obscurities'. So we come to this week's word, NEMATIC, which Chambers defines as 'being in or having a mesomorphic phase in which the atoms or molecules are arranged in parallel lines, but not in the parallel planes typical of a smectic substance.' If you happen to be an expert in liquid crystals this is presumably perfectly clear to you, but for most of us it involves a struggle with MESOMORPHIC ('relating to a mesomorph; relating to an intermediate state of matter between solid and liquid') and SMECTIC ('used of a substance whose state is intermediate between solid and liquid and whose atoms or molecules are oriented in parallel planes'), and the resultant dim comprehension probably doesn't last more than five minutes. No problem for those who couldn't care less about definitions anyway, but frustrating for those for whom one of the attractions of Scrabble is the symbiotic relationship it has with the world of real knowledge, unlike, say, chess.

Ah well, nobody these days can know everything, even very superficially. (Possibly the last person who did command pretty well all the knowledge of his time was Aristotle, and a lot of what he knew was dead wrong anyway). So we'll all have our favourite 'super-obscurities', those words whose meanings just won't stick, and it would be interesting to hear some. A couple more of mine are KURTOSIS, 'the relative degree of sharpness of the peak on a frequency-distribution curve', and ABELIAN, 'a term in group theory designating a type of commutative group', which is fine if you know what group theory is and what commutative means.

Apologies to mathematicians for my ignorance. I'm pretty good on flatfish though...


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