Even when experiencing writer’s block, I get a kind of electrical tingle, a sliding warmth, or even a centeredness out of the look and sound of certain words. It’s not exactly synesthesia, but it makes me wonder if there is another sense we haven’t yet named. Some words seem to peel free of their immediate context for a moment. They bring a feeling of ease, satisfaction, amusement, or animation, that doesn’t always fit with the meaning of the word itself. There are words I want to pick up off the page, or out of the air, and gaze at, or listen to again more closely, as if tuning an instrument. I want to turn them over, feel whether they’re rough or smooth, put them on the kitchen windowsill to see how they catch the light, and whether they’ll throw it back into the room as prismatic spill, blue coin on the floor, or a bobbing, lemon jack o’ the wall. Or whether some word might sprout: buds, leaves.
I like the idea of a sidewalk chalkboard in the kitchen, with a word of the day written there, sending out its something-like-a-scent, its something-like-a-light, its something-like-a-texture, its something-like-a-coolness: its very what’s-the-word-for-it-ness.
Catch-cry. Slub-silk. Fanfare. Funfair. All the fun of the fanfare. Famble. Enkindle. Nunky. Pinguid. Swizz. Is a cocktail stick called a swizzle stick because people tend to take to drink when they’ve been betrayed? There they sit, morose, stirring their gloom into their Manhattans… Missing a lover’s dulciloquy, perhaps. Net a certain word, and a new trail of associations seems to open up in the bristling confusion of the day: a trail to take you through to a precious moment of clarity, or a refinement of memory.
Byways, paper roads, the tracks words leave… One of the pleasures of the old-fashioned, printed dictionary is the way you can chance across the unexpected term, or the little used, the quirky, the words you’d forgotten, the words you never knew, the words you thought you knew because you’ve lived with them for so long, but here’s a whole history you’d never been privy to. I’m not so keen on electronic dictionaries. With a digital version, yes, you can click to the word you want instantaneously, which cuts to the chase: but as with action films, sometimes nothing but chase means non-stop monotonous. A bit of talky, meandering dreaminess can be far more engaging.
I love the way, with my battered old Shorter Oxford English Dictionary – a gift from my parents when I was a teenager – I can plunge in, riffling through to look for, say, ciborium (which proves my lack of formal religious instruction), and get waylaid by clingstone, clinchpoop, clergess, churr-worm, chumship. By that sweetly circuitous route I taste peach; make company laugh as we toss the insult about; imagine another life as a mediaeval scholar; hear crickets creak, and feel the presence of my paternal grandfather, Hamish, whose nickname was Chum. A printed dictionary brings about happy little shocks of happenstance: words feel like happenings, events. It’s like walking around a corner, to see an empty music stand set in the middle of someone’s front garden, and a tui perched on it, singing, ‘without notes’. Or in the bustle of the marketplace at the end of winter, turning your head to catch sight of a young woman who has cleared a small space to dance, the competition ribbons pinned to her suitcase fluttering as if they’ve barely overcome stage fright themselves; and as you glance away, you see three Buddhist monks walk past, in companionable, silent single file, alms bowls clutched under their arms, so on the page in your mind, you see arms bowls…
Words and world dance in a ring: first one leads, then the other.