The Last Word : On being a wordie
Ziggurat and orotund. These are a couple of my favorite words. Not necessarily for their meanings, but for the way they appear on the page. The zzzz of ziggurat, and how it always makes me think of restaurants even though it means ancient temple tower or terraced pyramid. The roundness in the mouth of the word orotund. It sounds like what it is: clear, strong, and deep; resonant: said of the voice. Bombastic or pompous: said of a style of speaking or writing.
It is true, and only a little embarrassing that I have constructed whole sentences just to use a particular word. Then, in the editing process, fought long and hard to keep that sentence, even though it no longer fit the story. Rococo. Funicular. Tenebrous. Cognitive dissonance. Gosh, I love that pairing. The hard consonant at the beginning and the sibilance of the second word.
Lists of vocabulary words are part and parcel of any education. Even in today's frameworks and test-driven educational system, learning a bunch of words and being quizzed on them is de rigueur. Educators help students parse meanings and pronunciations by relating the roots, suffixes, and prefixes (not to be confused with a restaurant's pre fixe) as the building blocks of words. Our language is a stew of ingredients - the basic language of ancient Britain subsumed over time by the conquering French, which language is itself built on Latin. Even before our modern global awareness, words came into usage, brought back by sailors and fashionistas visiting Europe. I could go into affricative and fricative shift. But I won't.
We try to capture words, wanting them to stay still long enough to be comprehensible; or, finessing original meanings to suit modern experience. "Text" was a noun, now become a verb. Words pop up with renewed popularity, becoming a part of the current vernacular. "Paradigm" enjoyed quite a run a few years ago. The éminence grise, the Oxford English Dictionary in its vastness, is still a work in progress because language will not stay still long enough for it to be completed. Word-a-day calendars and little books on improving your vocabulary are a staple of bookstores and gift shops. "Smart Words: Vocabulary for the Erudite" by Mim Harrison is a charming list of words that "get you on friendly terms with some of the smart words in our rich, diverse, ever-adaptable, and always surprising language..." For example, if your paterfamilias' agitprop turned into a screed, you'd hardly offer an encomium for his hubris. Other resources for the reader include glossaries for particular lexicons, especially useful when reading a book on boats, defining starboard, larboard, and luff. And, my favorite, the thesaurus that doubles back on itself and offers word upon word to savor and use.
I confess that I'm a sucker for a novel that is filled with words I should look up. Many times I can suss (another favorite word) out the meaning by the context, a skill imparted to young readers at an early age while they're learning their parts of speech. I just finished a book that was laden with these unique words. I didn't look all of them up, but probably should have. For me, it was enough to glean meaning from usage than to stop each time a rare word flitted across the page. It might be said that salting a good story with puzzling words slows the reader down, takes the reader out of the dream that is the story, but I think that a little challenge is part of what makes a great book great. Simple stories with simple language are like elves. Simple stories made exotic by language are chimeras.
On the other hand, the skillful and incisive use of simple language is, in the long run, a more concrete way to keep language moving forward. Billy Collins, the former United States Poet Laureate and all around good guy, was here recently and read to a crowd at Featherstone. In eight lines consisting of words of no more than two syllables, he can tell a story, reach into the memory, heart and intellect of his auditor and say something that resonates. How wonderful is that? At about age nine I, like most youngsters, played with poetry, falling in love with the idea of metronomic lines of rhyme. And, like most youngsters, I passed through the phase without leaving my mark on humanity. I discovered the long form of prose narrative and have since been given to prolixity. Prolix is another fun word, although it can be a tad pejorative in the sense of going on too long.
As a wordie, I am unrepentant. I make no excuses for overindulging. I like my words ziggurat-rated, if not orotund.