The Fabulous Vocabulary Of Les Miserables

“Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.”

I once read Les Miserables. Unabridged, naturally. To say it took awhile to get through would be a significant understatement. The story is absorbing, moving, and wonderful. The textbook-esque asides, not so much. Anyone who has ever read this book from front to back knows more than anyone will ever need to know about the history of the Paris sewer system.

Anyway, as any 1,400 page book is likely to be, Les Mis is teeming with curious and fascinating words. There were so many of them, that I started to write them all down. Since I still have the list, it only seems natural to share some of its contents. I don’t believe in letting good words go to waste.

Somnambulist (noun)- a sleepwalker.

Genii (noun)- a plural of genius.

Nankeen (noun)- a firm, durable, yellow or buff fabric, formerly made from a natural-colored Chinese cotton.

Frippery (noun)- 1. finery in dress, especially when showy, gaudy, or the like. 2. empty display; ostentation. 3. gewgaws; trifles.

… Quick aside! Gewgaws??? gew·gaw [gyoo-gaw] noun – something gaudy and useless; trinket; bauble.

Phantasmagoria (noun)- a shifting series of phantasms, illusions, or deceptive appearances, as in a dream or as created by the imagination.

Pestiferous (adj)- 1. bringing or bearing disease. 2. pestilential. 3. pernicious; evil. 4. mischievous; troublesome or annoying.

Antediluvian (adj)- 1. of or belonging to the period before the Flood. Gen. 7, 8. 2. very old, old-fashioned, or out of date; antiquated; primitive: antediluvian ideas.

Duenna (noun, in Spain and Portugal)- an older woman serving as escort or chaperon of a young lady.

Miasma (noun)- 1. noxious exhalations from putrescent organic matter; poisonous effluvia or germs polluting the atmosphere. 2. a dangerous, foreboding, or deathlike influence or atmosphere.

Shagreen (noun) 1. an untanned leather with a granular surface, prepared from the hide of a horse, shark, seal, etc.

Pinchbeck (noun)- 1. an alloy of copper and zinc, used in imitation of gold. 2. something sham, spurious, or counterfeit.

Terraqueous (adj)- consisting of land and water, as the earth.

Grisette (noun)- a young French workingwoman.

Sally (noun) 1. a sortie of troops from a besieged place upon an enemy. 2. a sudden rushing forth or activity. 3. an excursion or trip, usually off the main course. 4. an outburst or flight of passion, fancy, etc.: a sally of anger. 5. a clever, witty, or fanciful remark.

Cortege (noun)- 1. a procession, especially a ceremonial one: a funeral cortege. 2. a line or train of attendants; retinue.

Empurple (verb)- to color or become purple or purplish.

Auscultation (noun, Medicine/Medical)- the act of listening, either directly or through a stethoscope or other instrument, to sounds within the body as a method of diagnosis.

Lugubrious (adj)- mournful, dismal, or gloomy, especially in an affected, exaggerated, or unrelieved manner.

Fichu (noun)- a woman’s kerchief or shawl, generally triangular in shape, worn draped over the shoulders or around the neck with the ends drawn together on the breast.

Vetch (noun)- any of several mostly climbing plants belonging to the genus Vicia, of the legume family, having pinnate leaves ending in tendrils and bearing pealike flowers,especially V. sativa (spring vetch) cultivated for forage and soil improvement.

Patois (noun)- a regional form of a language, especially of French, differing from the standard, literary form of the language.

Nostrum (noun)- a medicine sold with false or exaggerated claims and with no demonstrable value; quack medicine.

Miserere (noun)- a prayer or expression of appeal for mercy.

Poniard (noun)- a small, slender dagger, OR (verb) to stab with said dagger.

Ameliorate (verb)- to make or become better, more bearable, or more satisfactory; improve; meliorate.

Etagere (noun)- a stand with a series of open shelves for small objects, bric-a-brac, etc.

Seraphic (adj.)- of, like, or befitting a seraph.

Ree (verb)- to sift (grain, peas, beans, etc.).

Phrensy (noun/verb)- an obsolete spelling of frenzy.

Porphyry (noun)- a very hard rock, anciently quarried in Egypt, having a dark, purplish-red groundmass containing small crystals of feldspar.

Porringer (noun)- a low dish or cup, often with a handle, from which soup, porridge, or the like is eaten.

Pettifogging (adj)- 1. insignificant; petty: pettifogging details. 2. dishonest or unethical in insignificant matters; meanly petty.

Paradisaic (adj)- of, like, or befitting paradise.

Some of the words I put down don’t appear in the dictionary. Probably it’s because they are too antiquated, or too French, but I like to think that Victor Hugo just shared my affinity for making them up. If any one knows what these mean, let me know:







4 thoughts on “The Fabulous Vocabulary Of Les Miserables

  1. A very interesting take on Hugo’s vocabulary! I’m so glad you got through the unabridged version- I read it last year and can totally sympathise with you on your newly acquired knowledge on the Battle of Waterloo and the Parisian sewer system- really, very well done!
    Phoenixflames12 x


    1. In the interest of full disclosure, very little of that technical and historical learning was retained. I remember just enough to know that I really don’t want to die in quicksand, or be buried beneath a bunch of corpses in a well shaft. 😉
      Thanks so much for sharing, and stopping by!


  2. A Banlieue is a suburb of a large city.
    From the book: “Power being uneasy, held suspended over
    the menacing multitude twenty-four thousand soldiers in
    the city and thirty thousand in the banlieue”
    Stevedone couldn’t find this anywhere in the book, did you mean stevedore?
    noun: stevedore; plural noun: stevedores
    a person employed, or a contractor engaged, at a dock to load and unload cargo from ships.
    Not sure what translation you read, but this word may be in it.


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