Three adjectives – almost never used

A communications officer at one of greater Boston's many fine universities lamented aloud a few weeks ago that he no longer has much occasion to use the term "decanal." (He pronounced it to rhyme with "McCain'll," as in "McCain'll probably run in '08.")

He used to use it all the time, he said, but he's recently moved from one school to another, and among the new colleagues, there doesn't seem to be much use of this particular d-word.

"Decanal" was a new one on me. It sounds like something that might involve a dental drill, or maybe municipal water mains and storm drains. ("The triangle below decanal"? It looks good on the page, but doesn't scan for the inner ear.) It turns out that "decanal" is an adjective that means "of or pertaining to a dean": decanal communications, for instance.

"The dean's communications" would probably be the more straightforward way to refer to them. But how wonderful to have exactly the right adjective to go with the noun. In about a nanosecond I went from "I've never heard of that before" to "I understand why you miss getting to use it."

In the polysyllabic world of academia, where 50-cent words are a dime a dozen, "dean" sounds positively Anglo-Saxon. But its adjectival brother, decanal, gives away the family's Latin and Greek ancestry: It's rooted in the idea of "the head of a group of 10," with the same "dec" root as in decade and decimal. There's a "deca" root in Greek, too, that also means "ten," as you may recall from decahedrons in geometry class.

Later on, as I crossed the Charles River, another example of what we might call underemployed adjectives came to mind.

It's "riparian." It rhymes with "contrarian" and refers to the banks of a river.

It arguably sounds as if it might be a euphemism for senior citizens: "After his boffo stump speech yesterday at the assisted living facility, Mayor Blowhard clearly has the riparian vote all locked up."

But actually this adjective is useful to describe, say, "riparian trees" or "riparian societies" – those that grow up along the banks of a river.

Our more ordinary word "arrive" is a relative: Its original meaning was to come to shore, to reach the other bank (or rive, as they say in French, as in la Rive Gauche, the Left Bank, in Paris) of a river. Even our word "rival" is connected – "rivals" are etymologically "those who use the same stream." It's a good metaphor to express both closeness and competitiveness, isn't it?

Another just-right special-occasion adjective – one we should have seen more of during the midterm election campaign – is "psephological." It sounds like "psychological" except with a "seef" instead of a "sike" at the beginning. It's the adjective formed from psephology, a Greek-derived word meaning the scientific study of voting – or literally, "the study of pebbles," since the ancient Greeks used pebbles to vote. (No touchscreens for the Athenians, thank you.)

When I Googled "psephological," though, I got mostly dictionary definitions. The best example of it in actual use was in a blog post last year by a village councilor in the north of England, taking someone to task for his article in the Socialist Worker.

What this tells me is that "psephological" has a lot of unrealized potential. It's just waiting for the next election season – which, in the United States, always begins the day after the last election season.

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