I have a habit of re-reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire every couple of years. Nabokov’s verbal virtuosity combined with the novel’s extremely unreliable narrator always charm and stimulate me.
The novel is in two sections: a 999-line poem supposedly written by the narrator’s neighbor, a professor at a small Northeastern college, is followed by a rambling and demented line-by-line commentary by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, who claims to be an exile from Zembla, a “distant northern land”.
Yesterday I opened the novel at random and came across this passage:
Lines 34-35: Stilettos of a frozen stillicide
How persistently our poet invokes images of winter in the beginning of a poem which he started composing on a balmy summer night! The mechanism of the associations is easy to make out (glass leading to crystal and crystal to ice) but the prompter behind it retains his incognito. One is too modest to suppose that the fact that the poet and his future commentator first met on a winter day somehow impinges here on the actual season. In the lovely line heading this comment the reader should note the last word. My dictionary defines it as “a succession of drops falling from the eaves, eavesdrop, cavesdrop.” I remember encountering it for the first time in a poem by Thomas Hardy. The bright frost has eternalized the bright eavesdrop. We should also note the cloak-and-dagger hint-glint in the “svelte stilettos” and the shadow of regicide in the rhyme.
My dictionary (actually the ghosts of several dictionaries given new electronic lives in the mysterious bit-arrays of my computer’s memory-banks) defines the word stillicide for me:
Stillicide \Stil"li*cide\, n. [L. stillicidium; stilla a drop + cadere to fall.] A continual falling or succession of drops; rain water falling from the eaves.
I wonder why this word has fallen into disuse? I suspect that the “cide” ending leads to an unfortunate association with words such as suicide, parricide, and as mentioned in the note quoted above, regicide — but perhaps that confusion of two similar Latin roots could serve as a mnemonic for the word, a water-droplet’s suicidal act resulting in assimilation by the waiting earth.