“…. sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place — not very often and always inexplainable. There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness. The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through — not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible.” John Steinbeck (via Brain Pickings)
“One must always be careful of books and what is inside of them, for words have the power to change us.” Cassandra Clare
My favorite word is insipid:
Or perhaps my favorite word is serendipity:
luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for (Merriam Webster)
Almost everyone has words they are particularly fond of, without know quite why. Words that catch in our brains and bump gently around inside, surfacing at random times. Words that we love for their mellifluous feel in our mouths and their seductive tickling in our ears.
Mellifluous, by the way, is ranked among people’s top ten favorite words, along with serendipity, defenestration, kerfuffle, discombobulated, and persnickety. (Check out the full article here if you’re curious about the other words and their ranks in the top ten).
What’s your favorite word (or words)? Let me know!
“I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing.” ~ Shirley Jackson
I grapple with this thing that I have wrought;
Why is there such a gap
Between my words and thought?
I look at the page, full of wordy rabble—
Rouge syllables that fight me at each line.
Sense has done quite poorly in the struggle;
Sound has pinned it down upon the gravel.
I picture a stern judge, at a final test,
Banging down his gavel,
Declaring my work a mess.
No respite from unruly thoughts—
My mind is turning to a pulp
From wrestling with my inner ogre,
Whose small mind worries at each word,
Never satisfied. Why can’t I
Trap my meaning? I confess
I’m troubled by this failure on my part.
Still, sometimes there’s no shame in losing
As Jacob found, grappling with a stranger.
Just when his hip snapped out of joint,
He had a moment of jagged clarity,
Finally saw what he was wrestling,
Learned why it was worth the struggle.
Today is National Literacy Day, everyone! (At least in this timezone, it still is. Barely). If you’re reading this right now, you are clearly literate 🙂 Congratulations! I’d like you to take a minute or two to think back to a time when reading wasn’t effortless for you, when you still had to sound out each word and think about what sounds the letters made.
Think about the people in your life who helped encourage you, who listened to your hesitant first efforts, who let you read the same Golden Book over and over to them for an hour. Maybe there was a teacher who was instrumental in teaching you how to read, or perhaps your mom or dad was the one who first helped the process to “click” for you.
Have you ever thanked them for introducing you to the power of the written word? (As I write this, I’m thinking of my mom and the way she drilled me in the basics of reading even when I thought I never wanted to see another letter again. I loved it when people read to me, but reading can be hard when you’re first learning and I was easily frustrated. I don’t think I’ve ever thanked her properly.)
You can certainly still love words even if you can’t read (there are strong oral traditions around the world that prove it), but being literate certainly expands the amount of words you have access to. You don’t need to be around someone who has the Iliad memorized or who has a vocabulary the size of Shakespeare’s. You only need to have access to a written text (although being around people with large vocabularies and cultural literacy never hurts, either!).
For me, it was the written word that first allowed me to truly understand the power of language and start to harness it for myself, so the fact that I’m going to use a story about watching a TV show to illustrate the power of words might seem a bit strange. Bear with me.
Did any of you watch Arthur on PBS when you were growing up? You know, the show that totally warped hundreds of kids’ ideas about what aardvarks actually look like? The episode that scared me most wasn’t a show about bullying, or camping, or anything that you might expect a kid to find frightening. It was an episode in which Arthur and his friend Buster use a word without knowing what it means, because they think it makes them sound cool, only to find out later that it has changed the way all their classmates perceive them.
(I don’t even know how the episode ends because I was too afraid to finish it).
You may be thinking, “that’s not so scary,” and you’d be right. I think what frightened me so much was that I saw myself in that circumstance… encountering a word that I thought meant one thing and using it only to find out that it meant something completely different to my listeners. I think it’s because I understood even then that words have power, and if you don’t understand all the connotations of a word, then you aren’t fully in control of that power.
That’s the heart of a “that’s what she said” joke: the idea that words can get away from you, that they can be twisted into a meaning that you’d didn’t intend or were too naive to see.
This can still happen with the written word, of course, but it’s less likely. The written word is language crystallized, able to be refined and arranged to an extent that is not possible for the spoken word (at least, not for my careless tongue).
I have a pretty good vocabulary, most of which comes from reading extensively. This is more apparent in my writing than in my everyday speech. I think there’s something about the writing process that allows me to access and utilize more of the words I know. Also, there’s spell check (which has just kindly informed me that “spellcheck” is not a word).
The biggest factor that prevents me from using all the polysyllabic words that I know in everyday speech is that I can’t pronounce them properly. I used to think that this problem was mine alone; surely everyone else in the world knew that “superfluous” was not pronounced “super-flous” and didn’t get tripped up when they tried to say the word “miscellaneous.”
Then I went to college and found out that this wasn’t true at all. One of the most intelligent people in my classes would be discussing the finer points of a novel, for example, and completely butcher the pronunciation of a certain word. I can’t tell you how many times someone in a literature class would attempt to read a quotation and stumble over some of the words.
Now, these people could define these words in a heartbeat if you asked them, and could probably use them quite seamlessly in a piece of writing. But when it came to speaking these words aloud, they couldn’t do it. “These are my people,” I remember thinking.
One of my English professors claims:
One of the occupational hazards of being an English major is that you learn most of your vocabulary from books, so you will always be in danger of mispronouncing the words you know.
I don’t think this danger is confined strictly to English majors, although we might be more prone to it. It can happen to anyone who reads a lot and picks up new words from context clues or looks up unfamiliar words in the dictionary without hearing them spoken aloud.
Perhaps you’ve heard the joking definition of a synonym that says “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you want.” Well, for me, a synonym is a word I use when I’m not 100% sure I can say the word I want 🙂
It’s not so bad, though. Usually, the worst thing that happens is that I provide my friends with something funny to laugh at. I just tell them it’s one of the perils of a large vocabulary.
What’s the strangest word you’ve ever mispronounced? Is your vocabulary larger than the number of words you can say?
“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” ~Madeleine L’Engle
One of my friends from the Writing Center shared this video with me. It’s pretty perfect.
Now, I’m not a Grammar Nazi, but I do notice some of the “word crimes” committed by the people around me. One of my personal pet peeves is when people use “u” instead of “you” or “your” instead of “you’re.” Another is noun/pronoun disagreement. An example of this would be saying something like, “When a person commits a word crime, they seem careless” instead of “When a person commits a word crime, he or she seems careless.”
I know I’m not innocent when it comes to word crimes. I have a bad habit of saying “espresso” as “eXpresso” and “laptop” as “labtop.” I know this is wrong, but I can’t seem to stop. Typos also seem to creep up on me no matter how careful I try to be. (I’ve actually had to edit this post since I first published it to remove a particularly awful one).
These things happen. If I were to stop speaking or writing every time I committed a word crime, I’d never be able to communicate anything! My friends have a long-running joke that even though I’m an English major, I “can’t English.”
Trying to avoid word crimes is good; it helps people to take you more seriously. But don’t over-analyze everything you say or write. Everyone commits word crimes sometimes! Thankfully, most of them are just misdemeanors 🙂
Do you have any grammar/language pet peeves? Have you ever committed a really embarrassing word crime?
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should follow Anne Lamott on Twitter.
Also, I found a great Google poem completely by accident when I was trying to Google something just now, so I will share it with you:
How long will I love you
How long will I live
How long will Windows 7 be supported
How long will my money last
How long will diarrhea last
How long will the cherry blossoms last
How long will Vista be supposrted
How long will it take to lose weight
How long will it take to get to Mars?