Our Two New Words: “Perfuse” and “Synecdoche”

My Two New Words: Entries in my Word Power Book (Photo: viv)

DENIS Johnson isn’t a writer whose works I’ve read before. Neither is he on my to-read list, though a book fiend friend of mine had raved about him to me years ago. I never expected to read him until today, caught in that Sunday morning mood of languishing over the news and some marvelous slow reads from my favorite journals: FT Weekend, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and then the New Yorker, which was where I chanced upon the news that Johnson had died this recent Wednesday, 24 May 2017, at the age of sixty-seven.

As part of an homage to this great American writer with an “ecstatic American voice,” the magazine re-published a selection of Johnson’s critical works: essays, short stories, and interviews. I settled for a 2014 interview—A Q. & A. with Johnsona conversation about his short story, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.

The interviewer, Deborah Treisman, shared with Johnson that the story seemed to her to be “a vision of late middle age: perfused with tensions and regrets, fatigue and resignation, but also the occasional overwhelming joy, and openness.”

perfuse (v) [ with obj. ]
permeate or suffuse (something) with a liquid, color, quality, et cetera

Next, Ms. Treisman asked if the sea maiden was perhaps a synecdoche for all those moments of mystery in the story, or in life? Johnson never said “yes,” but he told of how the sea maiden motif came to him after years of tinkering following the moment he first set eyes on the title phrase in a fairy tale many years before—thirty-eight, to be exact. 

synecdoche (n)
a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa

Here’s the thing with vocabulary: some words are totally foreign, you see them for the first time, like a stranger. Perfuse is one such word.

Others though, have a familiar whiff, like some face from a distant past. Synecdoche, I had known, was a literary device, so obscure and unloved unlike oxymoron or anaphora, that I just had to consult my Oxford. Now that I’ve not only written it down in my Word Power Book, but have just written about it, I’m sure it’s going to stick. 


・late Middle English (in the sense ‘cause to flow through or away’)
・Latin perfus- ‘poured through,’
from the verb perfundere (per- ‘through’ + fundere ‘pour’)

late Middle English, via Latin from Greek sunekdokhē (sun- ‘together’ + ekdekhesthai ‘take up’)


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