Sunday, March 28, 2010

on language

(I went ahead and linked a number of words in what follows, words that I either had to look up recently because I didn't know them or words that I was checking the definitions of. Hopefully a) that's not highly irritating, and b) you'll go ahead and follow a link if you don't know a word.)

Some time ago my co-worker and I instigated a practice that we refer to, rather unimaginatively, as "The Word of the Day." I'm not sure how it started, but more days than not one of us will show up with either a new word or a word that we particularly love floating around in our heads, and we'll look it up on and spend some time talking about it. (And yes, joke about how we might work it into conversations with customers.) Galvanized, puissant, crenulated (or even better, the adjective form crenate), ebullient, unalloyed, and my personal favorite, concupiscence: all these and more have been bandied around as we process flowers and dust antique vases. We bring each other poetry, too. It sounds almost romantic, except it's not at all. (The last poem I forced him to look up and read was Sylvia Plath's poem about terrifying oxygen-sucking red tulips.) We just both like words, those we know and those we haven't met yet.

But it's part of something larger, namely that lately I've been a little bit obsessed with words. I've always been a big fan of groups of words--poetry, prose, fiction, nonfiction, song lyrics, whatever--but lately my focus has been narrowing down a bit to individual words, the bits and pieces of the larger wholes I love so much. I was the kind of kid who breezed through vocabulary tests in school, baffled that other people didn't use words like "disparate" in their everyday lives, although public education did teach me at least three words (that I remember; surely there were many more) which spring easily to mind: vacillate, cupidity, and maudlin. The first two were vocab words; maudlin was taught to me by my seventh-grade math teacher for reasons that now escape me and that I suspect had little to do with math, but it's a great word and I use it as often as possible.

That math teacher also had a saying that he liked to throw out at us: Know What You Don't Know. It's good advice, and I try to keep it in mind now that I'm no longer even remotely a student because learning can definitely fall to the wayside when nobody's pushing you to earn a grade. People seem to like goals (A, B, C, D and so on), no matter how arbitrary, and somehow I don't know that education systems often manage to show that knowledge itself is actually the goal that is being striven towards. Once we exit their hallowed halls, I think it's all too easy to stop Knowing What We Don't Know and just start Not Knowing. There are reasons for that--work, family, financial struggle, all the many and multifarious distractions and hazards of daily life--but it's the easiest thing in the world to just let that particular lesson slide right on by. I'm not immune to this, but at least I'm aware of my own faults, and what better place to start from?

And so, I've kept on with my self-education. I may be living in the "real world", but due to my arty professions and self-oriented lifestyle I've managed to escape many of the potential distractions of adulthood, things like full-time employment and children, and as such I still have plenty of time to read. I'm grateful for this because I'm aware that many (most) people don't have this luxury, and in order to avoid some sort of cosmic intellectual hubris I've been trying to humble myself a little bit and focus on recognizing that there's a great deal I don't know. And this, it turns out, includes not just information but the very words themselves that are used to convey that information. Perhaps because I never had to work very hard at it, I also never made much of an effort to knowingly increase my vocabulary. All of my life I’ve been notoriously lax about looking up words, assuming that context would fill me in or that I probably knew a word already that meant close enough to the same thing that it didn’t matter much.

Now I’m trying to mend my ways, and so I’m keeping a dictionary by me while I read and looking up the things I’m not so sure about; unsurprisingly, it turns out that there is a lot to be said for the words I skimmed over or bypassed entirely before. I’m discovering that I really love learning a new word, feeling the flavor of it in my mouth, stowing it away for the moment that will surely come in which it will precisely convey what I'm trying to say, but I also feel somehow richer for simply knowing what the words that I myself use (somewhat) regularly mean. Maundering, for example, which a friend described as ‘the perfect storm where “mumble” meets “wander”’, or multifarious, which I used earlier in this piece and was convinced that I had invented out of thin air (perhaps some sort of illogical combination of multi-valenced, which itself may or may not be a real word usage, and nefarious) until I looked it up and decided that I was spot-on. Other words are—perhaps--less useful. Consider demiurge, which is most definitely the word of the week, and which has two meanings: a public official or magistrate in ancient Greece, and "(in the Gnostic and certain other systems) a supernatural being imagined as creating or fashioning the world in subordination to the Supreme Being, and sometimes regarded as the originator of evil." A bureaucrat or the origin of evil: learning that those two were, in a perhaps anachronistic way, roughly synonymous sort of made my day.

I’m having fun looking up the money words, the big ones that I either don’t know at all or don’t know if I’ve been using correctly all these years, but there’s a certain amount of snobbery that I feel like I’m admitting to when I confess my love for words like sybarite or shibboleth. A much deeper part of this is that I’m realizing how many words I love just because they exist, because of how they roll out of my mouth and the precise way I understand them inside of my own head, and in this particular instance size truly doesn’t matter. When I say a word I enjoy, a word like certainty or chaste or insouciant, I can almost feel my brain flipping through the series of pictures, instants, memories, that inform my understanding of this particular word and its usage, and I feel a deep sense of happiness just for the knowing of it. I try very hard to pay attention to the beauty of the small details of my life, and what is smaller than a word, the lowest meaningful level of verbal communication? I’m owning what I don’t know, and I feel alight with possibility. Except really, I prefer incandescent.

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