Adventures in Lexicography

Don’t panic

Following border closures, economic shutdowns, and enforced isolation, many of us are feeling the need to refamiliarize ourselves with adventure. But what does an “adventure” actually look like? Where might it occur? Most important, how can I embark on one? The Adventurer’s Glossary, by the semiotician Joshua Glenn and the philosopher Mark Kingwell, with illustrations by the cartoonist Seth, explores these questions and more through a curation of amusing, diverse, and quirky terms.

This is the trio’s third collaboration, following The Idler’s Glossary, from 2008, and The Wage Slave’s Glossary, from 2011, and each book has followed the same formula: Glenn defines the selections, Seth fashions the accompanying artwork, and Kingwell pens a “philosophical introduction” that aims to situate a theme. With The Adventurer’s Glossary, they consider “what it means for anyone to accept and endure risk of all kinds,” through the definitions of some 500 terms, from the military “0‑Dark-Hundred” to “Zoom,” which apparently has meaning beyond COVID-era apps.

Kingwell explores how we are to separate adventure from non-adventure. While “high-level adventures,” such as heists, quests, and treasure hunts, often come to mind, our personal crusades may also be intellectual, philosophical, or spiritual. An ordinary task can become an ironic sort of exploit when one performs it badly. Even struggling to hang a picture, for example, can turn into a “real adventure.”

Much fun is had in making the larger point through the glossary’s idiosyncratic choices. Entries include “absquatulate,” “bonk,” “boof,” “crackerjack,” “dawn patrol,” “desperado,” “fubar,” “Galahad,” “hotshot,” “jinx,” “kick ass,” “MacGuffin,” “MacGyver,” “moxie,” “randonnée,” “sisu,” “vamoose,” and “yippee ki‑yay”— with and without the “motherfucker.” Brief but intriguing factoids accompany each word. For instance, “galvanize” refers to the eighteenth-century Italian scientist Luigi Galvani and literally means “stimulate a body with electricity.” The boxing term “haymaker” comes from the stroke of a scythe. And “jeopardy” is an adaptation and contraction of the medieval Latin phrase jocus partitus, or “divided game.”

In closing, a short “typology of adventure,” written by Glenn, groups adventure stories into eight paradigms, each defined by two contrasting yet complementary modes of escapism. For instance, the “Avengers” paradigm contains stories of self-overcoming, of the triumph of will over internalized destiny. Such narratives offer escapes from “persona” (the protagonist discovers who she is beneath the mask she presents to the public) and from “self-limits” (the protagonist reinvents himself in his own image). Examples include The Count of Monte Cristo, most superhero comics, and the Jason Bourne franchise.

Of course, adventures aren’t exclusive to the fictional realm. Real life can be intrepid too. To that end, Kingwell articulates five conditions for the “very idea of adventure”: the inescapability of the unknown, its attendant dangers, the overcoming of those dangers, the resultant experience of hope, and a “final” existential test of selfhood. For something to qualify as an adventure, he argues, the initial unknown must threaten to “unstitch the fabric of selfhood.” By attending to such threats — which is to say, by embarking on the journey — we surmount the concomitant challenges and find ourselves and our world “decisively altered.” We refute the logic that tells us what is possible and what is not. And this process forges a link between the adventure and the frontier, or the utopia.

Utopian ideas are often dismissed because we cannot imagine how we could ever get there. But the adventure, done right, can change notions of the possible. It can open our eyes to opportunity. As Kingwell puts it, we can move from “here to there to then.” And from “then,” we can gaze at a final frontier — which is never really final. (No wonder Derrida called hope the “unresolved remainder,” that which is not assimilated by the engines of reality, including “reason” itself.)

A glossary is, by definition, a non-traditional and non-narrative mode. There’s no pre-formulated path through its list of terms; in reading such a work, one chooses his or her own adventure, as it were. In that sense, Glenn and Kingwell don’t merely define different types of adventure — they offer one to their readers. Literary theorists may appreciate this clever embodiment, a sort of meta-thematic parlour trick. Though that’s not to imply that only a scholarly crowd can enjoy it. Indeed, the book could prove a handy reference for vaccinated adventurers now emerging in greater and greater numbers.

But even the committed non-adventurer will have plenty to chew on: the obscure terminology and attendant descriptions are just plain fun. For whoever chooses to embark on this campaign — and however they choose to navigate it — there’s lots to explore. Or, to borrow several of Glenn and Kingwell’s terms, The Adventurer’s Glossary is a crackerjack corker, so fire away, Flanagan!