Vocabulary in Walden
Vocabulary Examples in Walden:
"simoom..." See in text (Economy)
A simoom is a hot, dry, dust-laden wind blowing in the desert, especially in the Sahara and other parts of the Middle East. Thoreau uses the word here to to describe his desire to escape something that is not wanted.
"for the devil finds employment for the idle..." See in text (Economy)
This expression is based on other common ones that associate idleness with mischievous or harmful behavior. Such expressions are rooted in biblical verses that emphasize the importance of hard work and describe idleness as a gateway to sinful behavior.
"trumpery..." See in text (Economy)
An archaic word currently, "trumpery" refers to articles, objects, or even beliefs that are attractive but have little to no value or use. The adjective form describes things that are showy but worthless. Thoreau uses such a word to describe how he feels about the accumulated objects that people acquire throughout their lives, and how reducing such objects would allow them to better live the good life.
"exuvioe..." See in text (Economy)
Spelled "exuviae" in modern dictionaries, this word refers to the discarded skins or shells of animals. Thoreau is equating the accumulation of furniture and possessions with the growth of excess physical material on our bodies; it weighs us down.
"shiftlessness..." See in text (Economy)
This word is far less common than it used to be, likely because it's synonym "lazy" has become more prevalent. "Shiftlessness" marks someone who lacks ambition, energy, incentive, or resourcefulness. Thoreau makes a point here to state what is needed and that everything is not only intentional, but well thought out.
"the staff of life..." See in text (Economy)
This expression means that something (typically bread) is the most important, staple food in one's diet. One might remember the meaning of this phrase by considering how a walking staff is used to support someone, much how bread is a basic source of nutrition for many cultures around the world.
"The reader will perceive that I am treating the subject rather from an economic than a dietetic point of view..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau is again anticipating an objection that he is abstemious, or someone who doesn't eat or drink very much. He challenges this point by suggesting that he could eat his fill of someone's larder if given the chance.
"inveterate cavillers..." See in text (Economy)
"Inveterate" describes someone who has a particular habit or custom while a "caviler" is someone who makes petty or unnecessary objections. Thoreau is in essence saying that there will always be those who raise objections simply for the sake of doing so, and he once again tries to anticipate these objections by acknowledging and then answering them.
"Tartar..." See in text (Economy)
Now spelled "Tatars," these are a Turkic people who live in Asia and Europe. They were one of the five major tribal confederations in the Mongolian plateau in the 12th century CE. Notice here how Thoreau appears to invoke knowledge from non-European culture almost as a justification for his actions.
"Arcadia..." See in text (Economy)
Arcadia is a peaceful, pastoral region in a mountainous district of southern Greece. In Greek mythology it is the home of Pan and poetically it often represents a kind of bucolic paradise.
"have gone up garret..." See in text (Economy)
A "garret" is a very small room in a building that came to be associated with artistic types in the 19th century (being the only place affordable for them to live). Thoreau says that this Englishman would have been better off to have gone upstairs to his living space and begun life as a poet rather than trying to amass a fortune first.
"and not detect the motes in his eyes..." See in text (Economy)
A "mote" is a tiny piece of substance or material. Thoreau is likely making an allusion to the biblical book of Matthew 7:5, which talks about the hypocrisy of people pointing out faults in others without looking at their own actions.
"chaff..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau states that separating hypocrisy and cant from his speech is difficult and makes a quick metaphorical comparison to chaff and wheat. Chaff specifically refers to the husks of corn or other seeds that are separating during harvest, but the word can be used to generally refer to anything that is considered undesirable.
"cant..." See in text (Economy)
The noun "cant" refers to a type of talk or speech that is sanctimonious, hypocritical, and typically related to morals, religion, or politics. Thoreau is saying that he is trying to make his claims without coming across as hypocritical and derogatory towards his audience.
"copper..." See in text (Economy)
While using "copper" in this way has largely fallen out of the current English vernacular, in Thoreau's time the word "copper" referred to the coin that had the lowest value, such as a penny.
"belles-lettres..." See in text (Economy)
The phrase belles lettres literally translates from the French as "beautiful" or "fine" writing. This particular type of writing can potentially include any kind of literary work with the stipulation that the work is valued for its aesthetic qualities, style, and tone.
"dilettantism..." See in text (Economy)
"Dilettantism" refers to those who cultivate a certain level of proficiency in an area, like the arts, without any real attachment or professional interest. Thoreau says that while such an architects desire may be revelatory or useful, it still doesn't amount to much beyond amateur interest.
"The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau is trying to illustrate the connection between houses and their purpose; they all have the same function despite their shapes and have been built for the same reasons throughout time. Therefore, his little cellar and home will be just as suitable and purposeful as any "splendid house in the city."
"aguish..." See in text (Economy)
While "aguish" (the adjective form of the noun "ague") typically refers to a fit of shivering brought on by a fever (like malaria), in this context Thoreau uses it to mean a "chilly" or simply "cold" floor.
"the winter of man's discontent..." See in text (Economy)
This phrase may sound poetic, and in fact, it is. Thoreau is playing with William Shakespeare's original line from his play Richard III, in which King Richard expresses his feelings of discontent in a soliloquy, beginning with "Now is the winter of our discontent..." By stating that the winter was thawing, Thoreau paints a vivid image of how pleasant life at Walden Pond was for him in the beginning as he set about his experiment.
"Fatherland..." See in text (Economy)
In this case, the Fatherland likely refers to the Netherlands because of the Dutch colonists. The term, along with Motherland, are used to represent the home country or region of a particular people.
"publicans..." See in text (Economy)
The word "publican" comes from Roman history and refers to those who collected public taxes. Generally, the word can be used to refer to any collector of customs, tolls, or tribute.
"sties..." See in text (Economy)
A "sty" or "sties" technically refer to a pigpen. However, these words can be used to generally describe living conditions as filthy and degraded.
"suent..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau's rendition of the word "suant" is either an archaic or regional spelling. As an adverb, suantly refers to things that are working or proceeding evenly, smoothly, and easily.
"somersets..." See in text (Economy)
The context of this sentence, particularly the verb "turns," likely provided clues that this word is an older spelling of "somersault," the movement where someone turns head over heels in the air or on the ground and finishes by landing on their feet.
"hiring..." See in text (Economy)
Typically the verb "to hire" (particularly in American English) refers to paying someone services to fulfill an established contract. However, Thoreau is using the verb here more like "to lease" or "to rent" to indicate that people have to pay in order to use living facilities.
"Yankee..." See in text (Economy)
While this word has many connotations, the original meaning of "Yankee" meant someone from the New England region in North America. Over time is became slang for any member of the Union army during the American Civil War, and now it can be used (derogatorily) to refer to any American.
"wore the bower..." See in text (Economy)
According to the origin stories of the Abrahamic religions, Adam and Eve were the first humans on the planet. Prior to eating from the tree of knowledge, they lived without clothing nor shame for their nakedness. A "bower refers to a pleasant, quiet, and shady spot underneath a tree. So, by "wore the bower" Thoreau means that they only had the shade from trees to cover themselves up.
"Harlequin..." See in text (Economy)
Harlequin is one of the best-known of the comic-servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell'arte. The Harlequin is characterized by his checkered costume and played the role of comic relief as well as a nimble, clever servant. Thoreau chooses Harlequin to state that even his outlandish and recognizable outfit should serve him both in sickness and health.
"the Fates..." See in text (Economy)
Fate or destiny are often personified in stories and mythology throughout history and culture. Thoreau's casual comparison of the way the tailoress said "They" to the impersonal yet authoritative Fates adds emphasis to the finality of her statement.
"sinecure..." See in text (Economy)
A "sinecure" means a job that requires very little or no work while paying fairly well and providing status. In other words, someone who has a sinecure has a very easy job that pays well. Thoreau brings this up because he considers many of his odd jobs around town to have been valuable, but the town did not value his work at all.
"golden or silver fetters..." See in text (Economy)
"Fetters" are the parts of a chain or manacle that clamp around the wrists or ankles in order to restrain someone, a prisoner for instance. Thoreau calls them "golden or silver" to show how such wealth actually prohibits people from living instead of providing them opportunities.
"dross..." See in text (Economy)
In general, the word "dross" can refer to any kind of trash, garbage, or refuse and be used to equate something with worthlessness. Thoreau uses it here to compare all of the extraneous material possessions that people accumulate to rubbish.
"a sort of Elysian life..." See in text (Economy)
The word "Elysian" is synonymous with heavenly or paradisal. It is derived from the Greek word Elysium, the location of the blessed dead in Greek mythology. Thoreau uses "Elysian" as an intensifier to add strength to how much summer can contribute to human well-being.
"New Hollander..." See in text (Economy)
This term is now historical and unused. At the time, it referred to a native Australian, or Aborigine. Thoreau is using it to generally refer to other cultures in order to provide a contrast to Europeans.
"None of the brute creation..." See in text (Economy)
By "brute" Thoreau does not mean "cruel," "unpleasant," or "violent"; rather, he is using it to generally refer to beasts or animals. "The brute creation" then, refers to all creatures except humans because they have no need for anything beyond food and shelter.
"as old as Adam..." See in text (Economy)
Adam is the name of the first man according to the Abrahamic religions, and the expression "as old as Adam" is used to indicate that something is beyond ancient or as old as humans have existed. Thoreau uses this expression here to note that the tedious things that prevent humans from enjoying life have existed forever.
"a very ancient slough..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau employs the full use of the word "slough" in this passage. First, "slough" means a kind of swamp that suggests those in debt are stuck in a mire that is difficult to get out of. Second, "slough" also means a slowing of progress or activity which implies that those in debt must work harder and harder to make gains in their work. The overall impression is one of desperation, with the odds against the worker.
"factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors..." See in text (Economy)
The adjective "factitious," despite having "fact" as part of the word, means something that is artificial, fake, or bogus. Similarly, the adverb "superfluously" describes certain things as unnecessary. Thoreau uses words like these throughout to impress on the reader just how problematic he considers the plight of humankind.
"old book..." See in text (Economy)
By "old book," Thoreau means the Christian Bible. The line that follows is a paraphrase from the biblical passage from Matthew 6: 19. The next line from that same passage (Matthew 6: 20) says to put one's treasures in heaven where they cannot succumb to moth, rust, and thievery. Thoreau is likely quoting scripture in addition to his Greek metaphors to appeal to the intellectual and the faithful in order to make them see that people are struggling with the lives they have been given.
"its Augean stables never cleansed..." See in text (Economy)
For his fifth labor, Hercules has to clean the stables of Augeas, said to house the most cattle in the country and to have never been cleaned. Thoreau continues to use the Herculean metaphor to stress the poor and troubled situations that such people have been born into and struggled with their whole lives.
"Iolaus..." See in text (Economy)
The nephew of Hercules in Greek mythology, Iolaus is best known for aiding Hercules in his twelve labors, particularly the fight against the Hydra. Thoreau includes him here to build on his extended metaphor about how many people lack anyone to help them through their trials and tribulations.
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
"point d'appui..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
“point d’appui” = [French] “point of support” Thoreau is emphasizing the need for a reference point of support in order for one to be able to remain settled in reality.
"Brahme..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
“Brahme,” or Brahma, is the Hindu god of creation and the essential spirit of Hinduism. As the supreme god in Hindu mythology, Brahma is the Divine reality, of which the universe we experience is only a manifestation.
"the steppes of Tartary..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
This is a reference to a geographic region in Central Asia that features a series of treeless, semi-arid plateaus, or steppes. Thoreau includes “Tartary” here to indicate the land of the "Tatars," a Turkic people who live in Asia and Europe on the Mongolian plateau in the 12th century CE.
"Spartan-like..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
Spartans are native inhabitants of Sparta in Greece. Calling someone or something Spartan or "Spartan-like" characterizes it as typical of historical Sparta, its people, and customs; that is, a minimalist lifestyle distinguished by simplicity, frugality, courage, or brevity of speech.
"Genius..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
While we commonly use "genius" today to refer to exceptional talent and ideas, the Romantics used it to refer to a classical pagan belief: everyone has a guiding spirit provided at birth to govern his or her fortunes, determine character, and conduct him or her out of the world.
"itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
The Iliad and the Odyssey are attributed to the Greek poet Homer. Thoreau efficiently captures the main subjects of both of Homer's works in this tight phrase: the wrath of Achilles (Iliad) and the wanderings of Odysseus (Odyssey). Thoreau's intention here is to awaken his readers to the power of ordinary events. Flying insects don't normally awaken a sense of fascination with the natural world, but they live in a world alien to many humans due to how they experience life. Thoreau notices them to show Nature's beautiful and powerful intricacies.
"and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
Notice how Thoreau immediately describes this morning ritual as a religious exercise, which actually has two meanings. "Religious exercise" can mean rigid or consistently planned; however, since water is involved, there is an aspect of baptism or rebirth in his sentiment. Thoreau has repeatedly talked about the importance of self-reliance, and here he compared this new life at Walden Pond to something like a religious conversion.
"conventicle..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
A "conventicle" is a kind of assembly or meeting and has several nuances in meaning. Considering the context Thoreau situates the word, the best definition is a meeting that is private or unsanctioned by the law. Note how Thoreau describes the landscape with words that are mystical and evocative, as opposed to his more practical descriptions in "Economy."
"tarn..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
Based on context, Thoreau means a small mountain lake when using the term "tarn." This word is most often used by geologists and geographers, so Thoreau's use here captures the feeling of beauty and remoteness he experiences at Walden Pond.
"compensation..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
By "compensation" Thoreau means "payment." Notice here how this little side remark exhibits humor on his end and reveals a playful character to his text by juxtaposing legend with practical questions and comments.
"and be buried in it first..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
This is an excellent example of how fond Thoreau is for making exaggerations in order to demonstrate his points. Here, he doesn't mean to be literally buried in the ground; rather, he wants to emphasize how much time he wishes to spent with the land and how intimately he wants to be one with nature.
"garret..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
A "garret" is typically a very small, dingy room on the top floor of a building. Such rooms have historical associations with artists in particular..
"chanticleer..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
While context in this sentence helps readers understand that "chanticleer" is a rooster, it is also an allusion to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and "The Nun's Priest's Tale" in particular. The proud, fierce rooster named Chanticleer dominates the barnyard.
"Olympus..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
In Greek mythology, Olympus is the home of the gods and can be used to refer to a kind of heaven or paradise. Thoreau is saying that simply being outdoors is akin to being on Olympus—that the world of the gods is the world of nature, and it's all around.
"Cultivator..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
When Thoreau says "my 'Cultivator,'" he is likely referring to the periodicals, such as the Boston Cultivator, that were popular during his time. The Boston Cultivator was a successful agricultural paper in New England from the late 1830s until after the Civil War. So, the use of "Cultivator" here is similar to saying "my daily newspaper."
"nawed..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
It's unclear why Thoreau spelled "gnawed" in this way, as the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's do not show "nawed" as an acceptable spelling. Regardless, from context we can conclude that Thoreau means "gnawed," or bit or chewed on repeatedly, to refer to what the rabbits have been doing to the apple trees.
"bounding..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
In this context, "bounding" means a border; that is, the farm is bordered by the river. While the owner considers this boundary beneficial to protect the farm from frost, Thoreau sees through this practical point of view to look more at the color and state of things, revealing himself to be more of a romantic, rather than a pragmatic, person..
"fallow..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
To leave land "fallow" is to avoid tilling the soil or planting new crops. This allows nature the opportunity to restore fertility to the ground. Not allowing fields to fallow can cause nutrients to be stripped from the ground, creating lower yields of produce.
"taken in homoeopathic doses..." See in text (The Village)
The adjective “homoeopathic” refers to homeopathy, a medicinal treatment in which a patient ingests small amounts of toxic substances so as to achieve immunity. Thoreau is somewhat sarcastically suggesting that gossip and news are similarly toxic.
"alto-relievo..." See in text (The Ponds)
The Latin phrase “alto relievo” means “high relief.” It is an ancient sculptural form used to represent humans and animals in an exaggerated, dimensional form. The relief often serves as an architectural feature in which the figures emerge from a level background.
"Cœnobites..." See in text (The Ponds)
“Cœnobites” (pronounced “see no bites”) are religious worshippers who live together in a community. Cœnobites can belong to any religious order as long as the practice is defined by communal living. They are the opposite of “anchorets,” or “hermits.”
"heathen..." See in text (Higher Laws)
According to Christian doctrine, a “heathen” is a person who has not been exposed to Christianity or has not acknowledged the Christian God of the Bible. The term is often equated to “pagan.” In this passage, Thoreau displays his open-mindedness with regards to religious belief systems. To Thoreau, it is not obvious that a Christian behaves better than a follower of another religion. From his writings, it is clear that he found Chinese and Hindu ideas to be immensely instructive.
"intangible..." See in text (Higher Laws)
The adjective “intangible” refers to that which is inscrutable and untouchable. Thoreau describes the “true harvest” of his daily life as intangible, suggesting spiritual and intellectual dimensions to his affairs.
"Yankee..." See in text (Higher Laws)
“Yankee” is a slang term for an American from the North. It achieved great popularity during and after the American Civil War (1861–1865). Having lived his entire life in Massachusetts, Thoreau was himself a Yankee.
"alburnum..." See in text (Conclusion)
The softer, newer wood in the trunk of a tree between the bark and the hardened heartwood. It is more permeable, lighter in color, and less hardy than the heartwood.
"Eulogies..." See in text (Conclusion)
A “eulogy” is a verbal or written piece that praise someone or something. Eulogies are most commonly written for someone who has recently died.
"obsequious..." See in text (Conclusion)
The adjective “obsequious” describes someone or something as excessively attentive or subservient.
"Let us not play at kittly-benders. There is a solid bottom everywhere...." See in text (Conclusion)
The compound noun “kittly-benders” refers to thin, bending ice that has formed over a pond or surface of water. Since Thoreau mentions play, to “play kittly-benders” refers to running, or running a sled, over thin ice. In this quote, Thoreau is emphasizing how we should not take unnecessary risks for our own satisfaction; rather, we should prioritize strong foundations that allow us "to travel the only path [we] can."
"tafferel..." See in text (Conclusion)
Also spelled “taffrail,” this term refers to the railing around the stern of a ship. Usually this section is ornamented with carvings and other designs.
"cosmopolite..." See in text (Conclusion)
This is the noun form of the adjective “cosmopolitan.” A cosmopolite means someone who treats the whole world as her country and has no national attachments or prejudices.