Dear Word Detective: I consider myself fairly well-educated and reasonably well-read, to the extent that it is a rare experience when I am stopped dead in my reading by a word that I cannot understand even from the context. Such was the case when, in reading Allen Guelzo’s “Lincoln and Douglas” (2008), I encountered a reference to Senator Douglas’s “rodomontade.”  Neither my 2006 Concise Oxford American Dictionary nor my 2001 6th Edition Roget had heard of the word. My old standby American Heritage Dictionary (1968 — you told me I needed a newer one!) defines it as “pretentious boasting,” originating from a character in a 15th century play. Is this word in anything like current usage, or is Guelzo’s use an illustration of its meaning (“I know this word and you don’t”)? — Charles Anderson.

Oops. My bad. I really told you to deep six your American Heritage Dictionary? I’m glad you didn’t listen to me. My father, William Morris, was Editor-in-Chief of that edition (published in 1969, I believe), the first American Heritage Dictionary. It was considered a revolutionary work in several respects (use of photographs, inclusion of “bad words,” more attention to etymology, use of a usage panel, etc.). It’s definitely something you should hang onto.

“Rodomontade,” which the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines as “Extravagant boasting or bragging; bravado; boastful or bombastic language,” is in current usage in the same way you can say with assurance that there are four-leaf clovers out there somewhere. A search of Google News at the moment reveals exactly four instances of the word being used in print, and two of those are in French (where it means the same thing). Of the English-language sources, one is an article about British politician George Galloway (“[T]he handful of curious passers-by had swelled to a throng by the time he had finished a rodomontade which excoriated Labour and the Conservatives for neglecting his city”) and the other about (hoodathunkit?) Donald Trump (“Until the mid-’60s, rodomontade was rare even in sports. Then came Muhammad Ali. His exuberant braggadocio was what made Ali so different …”).

The inspiration for “rodomontade” was the character Rodomonte, a courageous but excitable and boastful Saracen leader in the epic poem “Orlando Innamorato” by M. M. Boiardo (1495) and its sequel (by L. Ariosto) “Orlando Furioso” (1532). The name “Rodomonte” apparently means “one who moves (rolls away) mountains” in dialectical Italian, and the character Rodomonte is fittingly distinguished by his courage and forceful plain-speaking (which leads to his death).

When “rodomontade” first appeared in English in the late 16th century, it was used to mean a single instance of boastful or arrogant speech or writing (or simply an arrogant act, a usage now considered obsolete). We also adopted the term “rodomont” to mean a person who boasted and blustered in a vain, egotistical manner. By the mid-17th century, however, we were using “rodomontade” in is modern collective sense of “boastful or bombastic language” (“For all your Rodomontade, our Principals shall fight with you with any Arms,” Earl of Orrery, circa 1679). “Rodomontade” also began to be used as an adjective meaning “boastful, characterized by bragging” during this period (“Whereas a modest mistake might slip by undiscern’d, these Rodomontade errors force themselves upon mens observation,” 1667). An interesting use from 1919 cited in the OED employs the word to characterize society in general (“These instances in themselves are not edifying to our rodomontade civilization”).

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