Pallesthesia: The sensation of mechanical vibration on or near the body. From Greek pallein, to quiver, and aisthesis, feeling.
Pallesthesia shows up mostly in medical reference books and journals—in, for example, a 1953 article in Nature on “depression of vibratory sense levels in lupus erythematosus.” But John McPhee, the eminent author of books about basketball, geology, freight transportation, and many other topics, is also fond of it. He drops it into “Frame of Reference,” his essay in the March 9 issue of The New Yorker about when to explain a reference and when to skip it. Here’s his satirical example of “when to skip it”:
And NPR is reviewing the life of the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee: “He became close to a Georgetown neighbor—a young senator named John F. Kennedy.” Doesn’t that give you a shiver in the bones? Pure pallesthesia. Ta-da!
This isn’t McPhee’s first pallesthetic indulgence. He slipped it into a description of a volcanic eruption in his 1989 book The Control of Nature, excerpted over several issues of The New Yorker:
The eruption came without warning—that is, without sufficient portent to yield an interpretation resulting in alarm. Gudmundur Karlsson, visiting friends the previous evening, thought he felt vibrations. He asked his friends if they were having trouble with their central heating. They looked at him oddly and said they felt nothing. In the hour after midnight, Magnus Magnusson thought he counted fifteen earthquakes. They were like touches of pallesthesia, nothing more: little shivers in the bones.
When is it kosher to use an obscure word like pallesthesia or an obscure reference—Tom Ripley? Wilford Brimley?—in writing intended for a general audience? How much of a frame of reference should the writer provide before sounding condescending or simpleminded? McPhee illuminates:
Frames of reference are like the constellation of lights, some of them blinking, on an airliner descending toward an airport at night. You see the lights. They imply a structure you can’t see. Inside that frame of reference—those descending lights—is a big airplane with its flaps down expecting a runway.
You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness. If you say someone looks like Tom Cruise—and you let it go at that—you are asking Tom Cruise to do your writing for you. Your description will fail when your reader doesn’t know who Tom Cruise is.
On the other hand, McPhee writes, “Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.” Thus: pallesthesia (twice in a lifetime). And, from another McPhee essay: “grand odobene mustache.” Yes, McPhee could have written “walrus mustache.” But where’s the fun—and the race to the dictionary—in that?