In Aids to Reflection, Coleridge often throws in the odd Latin word or phrase. Mostly, he offers an accessible and useful definition. Sometimes not though, and I like to be sure I am catching everything etymologically. One term that intrigued me especially was lene clinamen, so I did a looking myself.Read More
Filtering by Tag: words
The British newspaper The Guardian recently invited a handful of writers to discuss the words that they cherish the most. “One of my favorites is the Cumbrian word glisky,” wrote novelist Sarah Hall, “meaning a kind of bright flashing light that you get after it has rained, when all the surfaces are wet and reflecting.”
Aminatta Forna, a Scottish-born writer, described an Orkney word: “Plitter: to play about in water, to make a watery mess.”
Clot, claret, nesh, thrawn, slipe, whiffle-whaffle: all were extolled. (Will Self lovingly recalled a compound word that formed a complete thought: “Pipe-down!,” one of his father’s “interwar slang expressions that are long departed from the common lexicon.”)
The chance to luxuriate in the materials of one’s craft is irresistible; reviewing The Guardian’s feature, New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead could not help but tender a richly branching sentence concerning a word she holds dear:
I cannot say the word ‘procrastinate’—a useful word for a writer—without hearing embedded therein 'cras,' the Latin word for 'tomorrow,' which, St. Augustine noted, sounded like the croaking cry of the dilatory raven that was sent from the ark and never came back.
My wife, a writer, could not even let me finish describing The Guardian’s assignment. “Luscious!” she exclaimed. And then, slowly, “luminous.” And finally, “Frangelica. It’s fun to say.”
According to the compendium Favorite Words of Famous People, the first word the exuberant stylist Nicholson Baker loved to say was broom. From there, the list evidently grew so quickly and lavishly, it required the most exquisite attention:
Of abstract nouns containing the letter l, my favorites are 'reluctance' and 'revulsion.' The ‘luct’ in 'reluctance' functions as an oral brake or clutch ('clutch' and 'luct' being sonic kin), making the word seem politely hesitant, tactful, circumspect—willing to let the hired tongue have its fun before completing its meaning.
Ocean is one of the words I love most. I love the surging sounds it makes: from the slow, enfolding swell in Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, when the forlorn men watch Shield Sheafson’s funeral pyre disappear “far on out into the ocean’s sway,” to the menacing rush that occurs when the word, amassing an extra syllable in the mouth of Henry V, overtakes the bounds of our modern ears:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, Or close the wall up with our English dead! In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility, But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage, Then lend the eye a terrible aspect, Let pry through the portage of the head Like the brass cannon, let the brow o'erwhelm it As fearfully as doth a gallèd rock O'erhang and jutty his confounded base, Swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean.
There’s no telling what Shakespeare himself would have written in response to The Guardian’s query. But if frequency of contact is an indication of affection, it is worth noting, as Brad Leithauser did in a 2013 New Yorker piece, that sweet and its kin appear in The Complete Works close to a thousand times. A search of the Shakespeare concordance on OpenSource Shakespeare reveals a word that arrives with nearly the exact same frequency: time. Joining that pair is think. Good arrives three times as often, as do thou and shall. Death (918) and life (890) are separated merely. And all are surpassed by the forms of love.
Can you do me this favor right now and imagine in your mind’s eye an altar. OK. Now put the following title “Progress” on that handsome altar. (No doubt you are chuckling right now, but work with me.) OK, we probably would agree that such a thing is not just connected with a strict religious connotation, right? Altars are used for sacrifice, and that is not always bad. Parents sacrifice time for their children. Couple’s sacrifice their earlier freedoms for—hopefully—the bliss of togetherness. Respectable citizens sacrifice their money for good charity. Forward thinking students sacrifice some frivolities for future degrees, etc., etc. We generally sacrifice something for a reason, and that's good.
Of course, while some sacrifice can also be offered out of good intentions, it can also have lamentable consequences. We make a sacrifice for a perceived good and then it turns out later to make things worse. We have sacrificed our environment for the sake of convenience, our health for the sake of a quick meal, and our leisure for the sake of cheap utilitarianism.
What about words though? And what of that altar of sacrifice? Let’s take another thought test: think of the following words “pure,” “chaste,” “modest,” and “virginal,” (I cringe whilst typing!) and then imagine employing them in an everyday conversation. Better yet, try to remember any modern day movie or play or novel you have heard them in.
Maybe it’s just me—though I don't think so!—but doesn't “purity” have a rather flaccid, weak and wimpish connotation to it? And a “chaste” individual in our time and age is a what? A nun? Probably a modest nun. As far as “virginal”? ... no one even wants to go there. Yet despite the fanciful claim that our age is still sexually repressed, why then have we sacrificed the non-sexual meanings of these words in even our spiritual settings for the most part? Part of it is that we are paranoid of gendering words, I think. (I can't help myself, but when was the last time you heard the word “maiden” used? It’s sexist right? I mean a maidenly CEO is literally an anathema. And understandably so: maidenly is not productive or efficient.) Even words like “innocent” or “wholesome” are little used. What would “innocent” look like? A reaction I have gotten when asking is “oh, probably someone really naive, or young or frigid.” When I asked if “wholesome” could be included with vibrant sexuality, I got a truly odd look; sure, organic food is wholesome, Jersey cow cream is wholesome, but, like, an actual person who partakes in “wholesome” sexuality ... and isn't Amish (AKA boring)? I can't ever see Victoria Secret coming out with a “wholesome” line of undies. I rest my case.
We all know that chaste doesn't just mean abstaining from you-know-what. It also means to be circumspect, restrained from excess, and to be free from indecency or offensiveness. As consumers, that sounds like something we need more of! (Even if nothing else than to rid ourselves of kitsch.) How about being chaste of desire? And not sexual desire either. Yet, since that word has lately been castigated to only its sexual connotation, what has modern culture lost? In his Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis talked of verbicide. He mentioned that morality and immorality have been linked nearly exclusively to chastity and lechery. Yet morality includes more than just the sexual. So do words like “modest” or “chaste” or “pure.” They do, in fact, include large tracts of our life, and we will be better off if we don't sacrifice their use in our diction simply because current culture isn't comfortable with words that carry the whiff of—heavens!—temperance. And there is yet another word we could study!
Today, I still enjoy traveling the long, quiet distances to finding the exact word needed to make the poem “click,” as Yeats said, “like the closing of a box.”Read More
6.1 poet Jill Reid found community in words, and now she is working on a Holy Spirit building one word at a time.Read More