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Ten Words with James Madison

James Madison’s writings are not always easy reads. He wrote complex sentences, often stating his thoughts indirectly. He also used many words that are unfamiliar to modern readers. Even your friendly neighborhood Senior Research Historian has to google Madison’s vocabulary words now and then.

How does your vocabulary match up to James Madison’s? Take our Madisonian Vocabulary Quiz and find out!

1. Arcana:
(a) a pastoral landscape
(b) a variety of wheat
(c) territory that later was divided into Arkansas and Louisiana
(d) mysterious or secret information

2. Aliment:
(a) something that ails you
(b) food or nourishment
(c) clothing
(d) a knotty problem; the crux of the matter

3. Crepuscular:
(a) oozing from infection
(b) crawling like an insect
(c) relating to twilight
(d) designed in a classically-influenced style

4. Eclaircissement:
(a) a bakery specializing in French pastry
(b) a clarification or explanation
(c) a method for purifying water
(d) a peace agreement

5. Esculent:
(a) edible
(b) easy to understand
(c) descending
(d) fraudulent

6. Extirpate:
(a) to eradicate
(b) to renounce one’s citizenship
(c) to live abroad
(d) to remove from a difficult situation

7. Pabulum:
(a) a traveling trunk
(b) sustenance, whether physical or intellectual
(c) a grainy-flavored beer
(d) a soil layer containing small rocks

8. Prolixity:
(a) tedious wordiness
(b) nearness
(c) downward displacement of an organ
(d) a quality associated with the working class

9. Sublunary:
(a) underground
(b) originating from the moon
(c) less than acceptable
(d) earthly

10. Valetudinarian:
(a) the top student in class
(b) a hypochondriac
(c) a person of unusual bravery
(d) a body servant, whether free or enslaved


Well, that made the SAT look easier, didn’t it?

To keep you from peeking, this watchful portrait of James Madison is situated between you and the correct definitions. Have you committed to your final answers? You may proceed.

Portrait by Thomas Sully after Gilbert Stuart, National Portrait Gallery, gift from the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

  1. Arcana: (d) mysterious or secret information; things that are arcane. Future events, like the outcome of the Constitutional Convention in this letter from Madison, could be considered arcana.

“What the result of the experiment may be is among the arcana of futurity.”

James Madison to William Short, June 6, 1787


  1. Aliment: (b) food or nourishment; literally, what goes down your alimentary canal; figuratively, sustenance for ideas. In Madison’s first inaugural address, he expressed an appreciation of “the advancement of science and the diffusion of information as the best aliment to true liberty.”

James Madison, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1809.


  1. Crepuscular: (c) relating to twilight. After the 1828 presidential election, Madison used the metaphor of differing degrees of darkness to explain how even the Washington insiders didn’t know what to expect from incoming President Andrew Jackson on particular issues.

“I refer you again for the politics at Washington to the printed accounts & private communications furnished you from that quarter. It is said there is less than a crepuscular light even there, on the views of our new President, regarding the objects peculiarly interesting. Elsewhere it is the darkness of midnight.”

James Madison to James Barbour, February 6, 1829


  1. Eclaircissement: (b) a clarification or explanation, particularly in regard to something difficult to explain, such as the question of whether Mr. Hooe was entitled to a lamb that was born after a shipment of sheep arrived in the United States, considering that he had been promised a lamb only if one was born during the voyage.

“I have not yet come to an eclaircissemt. with Mr. Hooe. “

James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, July 2, 1810


  1. Esculent: (a) edible, in relation to plants. Corn is esculent; tobacco is not.

“We have had a profusion of rain after an unexampled drought … but it is too late to have any material effect on the Crops of Indian Corn the great esculent staple in this Country, and its excess gives it a bad as well as a good effect, on Tobacco the other ⟨im⟩portant crop at stake. ”

James Madison to Alexander J. Dallas, September 15, 1816.


  1. Extirpate: (a) to eradicate or destroy; what to do with particularly pesky weeds.

“[Man] … must be able by extirpating every useless production of nature to convert the whole productive power of the earth into a supply of those particular plants & animals which serve his own purpose…”

Preliminary draft of an essay on natural order, ca. November 10, 1791


  1. Pabulum: (b) sustenance, whether physical or intellectual; may also refer to content that is bland or oversimplified.

“Opinions whose only root is in the passions, must wither as the subsiding of these withdraws the necessary pabulum.”

James Madison to Richard Rush, January 17, 1829


  1. Prolixity: (a) tedious wordiness. Madison blamed the slow progress of the First Congress mainly on the complex issues requiring legislation, but also on the tendency of all the Congressmen to contribute their opinions to the debates at great length.

“The federal business has proceeded with a mortifying tardiness, chargeable in part on the incorrect draughts of Committees, and the prolixity of discussion incident to a public body, every member of which almost takes a positive agency, but principally resulting from the novelty and complexity of the subjects of Legislation.”

James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, June 30, 1789


  1. Sublunary: (d) earthly, of this world (literally, “beneath the moon”).

“But, alas! Death, with his unsparing hand, has translated him for ever from all sublunary enjoyments; leaving in sorrow the friends who admired him; and in tears an amiable family; in the bitterest of them, her who was bound to him by the most tender of the ties that have been severed.”

James Madison’s eulogy for his friend and colleague Francis Corbin, June 4, 1821


  1. Valetudinarian: (b) a hypochondriac; more generally, a person who is weak, sickly, and/or overly worried about their own health.

“Our friend Grayson remains nearly in status quo. He is a valetudinarian without being sick, and unhappy without knowing why. “

James Madison to James Monroe, February 11, 1787

Rate Yourself
10 correct: You could do costumed portrayals of James Madison at historic sites.
8-9 correct: You have a promising career on the editorial staff of The Papers of James Madison.
5-7 correct: Have you considered trying out for Jeopardy?
3-4 correct: You were voted Most Likely to Be Class Valedictorian.
1-2 correct: You were voted More Likely to Be Class Valetudinarian.
0 correct: You are a perfectly typical resident of the 21st century. But you’re smarter now than you were 20 minutes ago, when you started this quiz.

It’s always a good day when you learn a new vocabulary word!

We predict that James Madison interpreter John Douglas Hall would do well on this quiz.

Photos of John Douglas Hall in Montpelier’s Old Library by Eduardo Montes-Bradley, courtesy of James Madison’s Montpelier, a National Trust historic site.