Monday, December 17, 2007

Words I don't know

A wonderful piece in the Guardian Review about (bothering to go about) looking up all those unknown words we encounter all the time. James Meek writes, "For some reason that I have never fully grasped, it is easy for those in the word business to admit any degree of innumeracy ("I'm hopeless with arithmetic"), or helplessness with the daily machinery of their trade ("I don't know anything about computers"), but difficult to speak frankly about not knowing what a word means." Though I suspect it's for the same reason mathematicians don't like to voice their frustrations with long division.

Oh, but there are so many words I don't know. As I've written here before, I decided to collect unknown words once upon a time, to keep them and tame them. It was while I was living in Japan and devouring battered paperbacks by Margaret Drabble, whose vocabulary still far surpasses mine. Inspired by my ESL students, I started writing down new English words in a little black notebook and the list grew and grew. I was hoping for admission to graduate school within the year and my minuscule vocabulary (consisting too much of "fuck" and "cool") seemed like it might be an impediment. So I learned: "sybaritic", "quondam", "recalcitrant", "bathetic", "avuncular". These are words I know, and whenever I see them, I remember I didn't always.

But I stopped collecting-- I don't remember why or when. Probably when we moved to Canada, for it is easier to collect English in a land where it is scarce. I think the why also had something to do with leaving our tiny apartment where pencils (and the walls for that matter) were never out of arm's length--namely I am lazy. But this article by James Meek has inspired me to start again-- really. I'm not anticipating grad school, but it's behind me, which is as good a reason as any to take responsibility for my education now.

Meek writes, "For clarity, we need common, current words; but, used alone, these are commonplace, and as ephemeral as everyday talk. For distinction, we need words not heard every minute, unusual words, large words, foreign words, metaphors; but, used alone, these become bogs, vapours, or at worst, gibberish. What we need is a diction that weds the popular with the dignified, the clear current with the sedgy margins of language and thought."

"Sedge. n. 1. any of various grasslike plants of the family Cyperaceae, esp of the genus Carex with triangular stems, usu. growing in wet areas. 2. an expanse of this plant."-- though actually I can't fathom what he means in this context-- anyone?