The Press of Language

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.

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19 Responses to The Press of Language

  1. Diane Brown says:

    Emma. I love this. Would I be be able to share it with my class? I have to say though that words in the dictionary don’t quite have that effect on me. Too black and in lines, and they float through my brain and out again, though I do like the idea of posting one a day. But the vision in the marketplace, is just lovely.

  2. Kay Cooke says:

    This is so true. You have captured something almost intangible, but definitely able to be ‘felt’, the fascination with language / words.
    I am in love with the game of hangman on my Google home-page. The race to get the letters to make a word emerge from a kaleidoscope … can be breathtaking!

    • ejneale says:

      I haven’t seen that version of the hangman game…will go searching. It sounds like the perfect thing to play when waiting for children’s dentist/doctor/eye appointments. Another reason to save up for a laptop!!

  3. Diane Brown says:

    No, an ipad is lighter. Will look for the game myself. I am addicted to code cracker in the ODT.

  4. Harriet Allan says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I have exactly that thrill, too. My Shorter Oxford was my mother’s from when she was young (she passed it on to me when she bought a Longer Oxford), so it has the added delight of being a snapshot of words from the late 1940s backwards. It’s like entering an earlier era, opening the pages and walking up and down its aisles, squeezing onto its various pews when I recognise a friend or like the look of a hat or see a fascinating stranger begging to be talked to. My husband had a more recent version but I never looked at it – not only does mine have the gracious period feel, but the smell and feel of the paper and ink have the calming effect of familiarity, and overriding it all is the thought of my mother, who is there with me every time I open it.

    • ejneale says:

      Harriet, what a beautiful, transporting piece of writing your comment is. I was hesitant about making this post at all – adding my own small noise to the constant daily babble of information – but getting these comments has been such a pleasure!

  5. Diane Brown says:

    Harriet, clearly you should be writing yourself. And Emma, yours is the exactly the voice that should be heard amongst the dross.

  6. janf says:

    I was very interested in reading this piece. I have often gone through the dictionary and felt that words with more positive meanings are to be found less in words beginning with ‘n’ than those beginning with ‘s’ ‘for example. Or is it just my synethsesia?

    • ejneale says:

      Curious! This had me browsing through the Ns last night to try to find attractive N words: necklace, nearly, nebula, necessary, night, night-glass, nightengale, new, nipperkin, noddypoll, niddering, nickname, nonce, nacre, natty, neaf, nereid, neighbour, nymph, nainsook, name-child, narrative, naissant, nimbus, nugget… Not all the meanings are jolly, of course, but some of them still have a certain tomfooling tartness: imagine a character who could be described as a namby-pamby, niminy-piminy, niddering nollypoll….

  7. The printed word is wonderful but my Shorter Oxford, so heavy, is seldom opened and the Oxford online reference collection that’s available through my public library membership is what I use all the time, together with the online OED. Recently, the novelist Geraldine Brooks talked of the Oxford Historical Thesaurus, which she finds indispensable. This turns out to be part of the OED database as well, and it has further widened my world of words. Who’d have thought (for instance) that a buzz word of today’s celebrity chefs and recipe writers, “crispy”, had different uses traceable back to 1398?

    • ejneale says:

      Fascinating stuff for a word-o-phile, Claire. I’m ever the late-adopter: and so this question will show my ignorance. Can you browse through the online versions of these in the same way as on the printed page, or do you zoom right on to the required word?

  8. Vanda Symon says:

    I am in love with my big New Zealand Oxford Dictionary and my Oxford Dictionary Thesaurus. I have used an electronic dictionary once and hated it, swore I’d never do it again and then almost begged forgiveness from my printed tomes. There’s something magical about losing yourself in the words, following a string of synonyms and seeing where it will take you, enjoying the crisp swish of the pages sliding across each other and breathing in the scent of ink.

  9. If you’re a natural browser, you’ll find a way to browse. When I search in the Oxford online reference collection, I delight in the results that come up – without my seeking them – from the Oxford Dictionary of Rhyme. Recently, looking up ‘harbour’ to find out about its cultural or geographical origins, I accidentally became absorbed in the Oxford Companion to Irish History entry about people dragging their curraghs (wicker boats covered with hide, says the Companion, but also marshy ground) up on the beach before the Vikings came along and built quays. And it was thanks to one of the online Oxford resources (the OED, I think) that I discovered a wonderful word, “bumfiddlery”, a couple of years ago.

  10. Sorry, Emma, to answer your question more directly: no, and yes. I’m sorry to be so contrary, but it’s different from looking at a page on a dictionary. If the word you seek doesn’t exist according to OED, I think it brings up a list of neighbouring words, which may of course be entirely unrelated. That is possibly how I found “bumfiddlery”. Also, in the whizzy new online OED, you can search for phrases and other things. In such a way just now I wandered from “lost” to “bring”, and found such instances as: 1865 E. Burritt Walk to Land’s End 445 Bringing up a long arrearage of writing.
    Online toys and tools like the above are perhaps of more use to historical novelists, but they tickle the fancy.
    I’ll admit, my computer doesn’t smell anything like as nice as books. And: this wordplay is preventing wordwork, so I’ll bow out now.

  11. ejneale says:

    And it looks like I’m going to have to get access to the online OED to find out exactly what “bumfiddlery” means … though it’s fairly expressive even without context!!

  12. Pingback: Emma Neale on writer’s block and ‘what’s-the-word-for-it-ness’ « Backyard Books NZ

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