A word bursts on the scene, fresh, faddish, perhaps consciously classical or rebellious or hip. It has its Warhol-appointed quarter-hour or its full Shakespearean hour on the stage, and then it slips back, retreats into the thin pages of the dictionary, eventually dies with a dagger through its heart and has its grave condition marked with an obelisk. Such is life; vanity may be glorious, but all glory is vain.
But just because this too shall pass doesn’t mean we should despise it. Indeed, the very evanescence of life’s delights enjoins us to enjoy them: if not now, when? Every moment is a new opportunity. Take it. Just don’t become attached to it. Relish it and relinquish it. Spend the moment well; just don’t give it meaning beyond its worth. Don’t think your first-class upgrade makes you a first-class person. Take the meretricious for its merry tricks, knowing you will be rapt one moment but unwrapped the next, and discard the rapper when it is empty.
Take this word, kenodoxy. Is it not glittery like a cut diamond, or at least like glass costume jewelry? The two hard velar stops are represented with sharp angular strokes in k and x; the third set of angles are a tail, a vowel y. It touches at the back, tip, tip, back and tip of the tongue. It sounds crisp and detailed and looks stylish in an expensive-watch sort of way: a beautiful machine so exquisitely made, you will pay much for it even if it doesn’t perform its ostensible function as accurately as a cheaper one may do. It glitters like a lottery winner; it has the meretrix’s merry tricks.
Lottery? How about keno? There’s a fun game, involving drawing numbers to match pre-selected numbers – originally five, hence the name keno, from Latin quinque. And meretrix? That’s an old word for a lady who has the oldest profession, one who will share her glories for a price and a limited time – ah, such is life. Another (perhaps less nice) word for the same is doxy. So. Keno and doxy? Free money and pricey love, twin impermanent luxuries? Perhaps you would not appreciate something so much like a diamond-studded balloon that will, when optimally filled, pop from the diamonds’ sharp points. But perhaps others would. And perhaps we all engage in a little kenodoxy.
Kenodoxy is not from keno the game plus doxy the gamer. Actually, it’s from Greek κενοδοξία kenodoxia, from κενός kenos ‘empty’ (whence kenosis) and δόξα doxa ‘glory’. (My, doesn’t that xi – ξ – look like a snake coiled and ready to bite?) Kenodoxy is, according to Oxford, an obsolete rare word meaning “The love, study, or desire of vain-glory.”
Oh, yes, vainglory! We do glory in our vanities, and remind ourselves of their impermanence. Riding high in April, shot down in May, but we’ll be back in June. Quicquid enim florui, felix et beatus, nunc a summo corrui, gloria privatus. Worldes blis ne last no throwe. But you might as well get it while you can. As we are counselled by much of the entire œuvre of rap and hip-hop.
O vainglory, how can we not be captivated by you? Here is a little bit of kenodoxy from Old Goriot by Balzac:
Love in Paris is a thing distinct and apart; for in Paris neither men nor women are the dupes of the commonplaces by which people seek to throw a veil over their motives, or to parade a fine affectation of disinterestedness in their sentiments. In this country within a country, it is not merely required of a woman that she should satisfy the senses and the soul; she knows perfectly well that she has still greater obligations to discharge, that she must fulfill the countless demands of a vanity that enters into every fiber of that living organism called society. Love, for her, is above all things, and by its very nature, a vainglorious, brazen-fronted, ostentatious, thriftless charlatan.
The vainglory of love, the love of vainglory, the vainglory of the love of vainglory.
We do not have to engage ingenuously in vainglory. We can always stand apart, observing ourselves bouncing in the ballroom of the world, delivering keynotes and savouring the finest things. This aesthetic appreciation that leads to insight, what the Sanskrit philosophers called rasadhvani, can also be applied to vainglory. Take your kenodoxy out from your lexical jewel-box and wear this rock on your ring finger. Be engaged in it. Just know that all vainglory is a jilt, and in the end you will be disengaged, whether you want or not.