In general terms, this post is just a celebration of Neal Stephenson’s mastery with words and the fun he has with thunderous incongruities. I’m going to do that in two ways—both from The Diamond Age.
First, I want to place the utter centrality of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Shanghai, several decades into our future. Judge Fang, Constable Chang, and Miss Pao are the participants in this spoof. They are trying a little boy named Harvard for assaulting a rich young engineer and stealing some of his possessions. Up to this point the trial has been conducted in English.
At this point, the three revert to Chinese.
“The hour of noon has passed,” said Judge Fang. “Let us go and get some Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
“As you wish, Judge Fang,” said Chang.
“As you wish, Judge Fang,” said Miss Pao.
Judge Fang switched back to English. “Your case is very serious,” he said to the boy. “We will go and consult the ancient authorities. You will wait here until we return.”
The House of the Venerable and Inscrutable Colonel was what they called it when they were speaking Chinese. “Venerable” because of his goatee, white as the dogwood blossom, a badge of unimpeachable credibility in Confucian eyes. “Inscrutable” because he had gone to his grave without divulging the Secret of the Eleven Herbs and Spices.
I think I have not passed a KFC for a decade or more without some version of the “House of the Venerable and Unscrutable Colonel” passing through my mind.
Today’s second celebration of Neal Stephenson will be made up of my notes on some of the words he introduced me to. I’ll pick my favorite five for today. I give Stephenson’s use first; then whatever I have come up with as the meaning.
Page 25: There were a bunch of coenobitical phyles—religious tribes—that took people of all races, but most of they weren’t very powerful and didn’t have turf in the Leased Territories.
This isn’t as weird as it looks. The dictionary cites cenobite, which solves the oe- problem and getting from cenobite to cenobitical is a short trip. A cenobite is a member of a religious order living in a monastery or convent. This distinguishes them from anchorites, who were hermits. Cenobite is a version of the Greek koinos, “common” and bios, “life.” There are later forms, of course, such as the Late Latin coenobium, “a cloister.” The prefix is pronounced SEE-no, as in evil.
This is an unfamiliar word that really adds something. It is just right. The meaning of the adjective coarctate in biology is “compressed or constricted” or “rigidly enclosed in the last larval skin: said of certain insect pupae.” Stephenson, with the verb coarcted gets not only the cramming together but the insect image as well. “Crammed together as tight as the final skin on a larva” is the clout he gets out of this word.
Phyle (Greek φυλή phulē, “clan, race, people”, derived from ancient Greek φύεσθαι “to descend, to originate”) is an ancient Greek term for clan or tribe. They were usually ruled by a basileus. Some of them can be classified by their geographic location: the Geleontes, the Argadeis, the Hopletes, and the Agikoreis, in Ionia ; the Hylleans, the Pamphyles, the Dymanes, in the Dorian region. [Wikipedia]
Page 341: The unmarked decussating paths would have been confusing to anyone but a native.
Decussating paths cross in the form of an X. How that’s different from an ordinary intersection, I’m not sure. The Latin is decis, “10.” That’s 10 as in X, since it’s a Roman numeral. Decussare means “to cross in the form of an X,” which is, apparently, what “decussating paths” do.
Page 258: “…who would struggle their way up the vast glacis separating wage slaves from Equity Participants.”
I am shocked to find that this word is pronounced like “glasses,” except the final s- is also sibilant. It looks so French. A glacis is a gradually slope. It doesn’t have any particular temperature, although it shares the root of the Latin glacialis, “frozen.” I think it’s the connotation he wants. A glacis can be part of a fortress; the embankment sloping gradually up to a fortification so that anyone attacking it will be exposed to gunfire the whole way. I think that’s the picture he wants us to have of wage slaves trying to become Equity Participants.
 Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. The KFC passage is on page 91.
 All three are Chinese, but Judge Fang is from New York City and Miss Pao is from Austin, Texas. They have been familiar with KFC for a long time.
 A thete is a person who belongs to no phyle at all. Phyle is the next word in this list. Until today, I thought it had no etymologically regular trail at all.
 enclaves, I imagine.