On Perpilocution

A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to learn the word perpilocutionist, defined as “one who expounds on a subject of which he has little knowledge”. Aha!, I thought, with the gleam of recognition, that’s me! Long ago, I jettisoned that dull-witted advice to “write what you know about” and took it upon myself to write about absolutely anything that occurred to me, including that of which I was profoundly ignorant – ornithology, for example. The American economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell has written that “it is doubtful whether the most knowledgeable person on earth has even one percent of the total knowledge on earth”, and, if that is indeed the case, I would be hobbling myself horribly before even putting pen to paper, were I to confine myself to my own paltry pocketful of knowledge.

My delight at the discovery of the word was somewhat tempered when I failed to track it beyond a few websites. There is no place for it, I am sad to say, in the OED, which makes me immediately suspicious. At first glance it seems to have a respectable Latin provenance, given its figurative meaning as “one who talks through his hat”. But while the “per” (for “through”) and the “locution” are clear enough, the Latin “pil” refers to hair rather than hats, as in words such as depilation and caterpillar. Still, I suppose the idea of talking through a full head of hair is akin to talking through a hat, if we picture such a pose in our mind’s eye, and the word is far too useful to discard now, simply on the basis that some wag might have made it up. After all, I have been known to invent words from time to time, and I don’t always bother to define them.

Identifying myself as a perpilocutionist grants me a magnificent opportunity, of course. Although I have been blathering on for years about things I know little or nothing about, I have done so circumstantially, or accidentally, or unwittingly, as it were – that is, in the absence of a conscious, declared aim or intention. But what would happen if I devised a project to address at least a percentage of the ninety-nine-point-nine percent of knowledge of which I am ignorant?

Take, as an example, Madagascar. I know that it is a big island off the western coast of Africa. I know, because once I looked it up in a reference book for reasons I have forgotten, that the capital is Antananarivo. (How excited I was, the other day, to shout the word at the television screen while watching an episode of University Challenge when Jeremy Paxman sought just that answer from the octet of not-so-tinies!) I know, or at least I think I know, that Heinrich Himmler once suggested Madagascar as a land of settlement for the Jews of Europe. Other than that, I would be hard-pressed to tell you a single thing about the place. Does that mean I am incapable of writing an essay entitled “On Madagascar”? Hell, no! As a perpilocutionist, I am in a perfect position to cobble together a thousand words on the subject, on any subject. And it is important to note that I need not precede my frantic tippy-tapping at the keyboard with any research whatsoever, particularly that pathetic excuse for “research” that consists, in these benighted times, of a quick browse of the Wikipedia. No, the Madagascar of my putative essay would be the Madagascar nestled in my ignorant head, brought forth, miraculously, through the spouting of blather.

It is no doubt foolhardy, but I have conceived the idea of writing, here, a daily essay, of which this is the first. The likelihood is that, long before reaching number 366 (this being a leap year) I will jack it in, abandon it, slap my forehead in astonishment at my own witlessness. But today, at least, it is a plan, and we shall see how it progresses. I am going to need 365 further topics, so if any of you would like to suggest subjects I ought to address, please use the Comments to do so. Please note that each essay’s title will begin with the word “On”.

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