English is a Stone Soup of words pilfered from other languages – not just with an etymology from Latin or Greek or Germanic or French (although those do make up 90% of the origins of the modern language). Words brought wholesale over from other languages are still a significant 10%. Significant enough that there’s a term for it – borrowings. Ha. Perfect.
I like it when a few moments collide to help you understand something more deeply. This is what’s happened to me with one of my favourite words. And yeah, I know, only a reallyreal word nerd has favourite words.
Moment the first: On a wander through a Barnes and Noble when I was on vacation half a lifetime ago, I bought Desiring Italy. In the prologue, there was a comment about what it meant to long for a place you’ve never been. It’s easy to want to go back to a beloved place – as I always do with Lake Louise in Alberta. But longing for a place you’ve never been is definitely harder to describe. Oh, for the right words.
Moment the second: When I got married, I walked up the aisle with my dad to Saudade by Love and Rockets. I loved that song for years before we got to the wedding chapel with it. And it would be many moons more until I realized what Saudade meant.
I’ve got descriptions from two Portuguese poet/authors. Because of course folks with those vocations will be best at describing words for a foreign ear. From Aubrey Bell: Its a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist; for something other than the present. And Not an active discontent or poignant sadness, but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. From Manuel de Melo, there’s a different take; a pleasure you suffer, or an ailment you enjoy. Distilled down for me, it’s more like this: a melancholic longing for something that maybe hasn’t even happened, or and absent something or someone that one loves. Yes. Exactly. There’s a word from an Scots dialect that is similar: Misslieness – the solitariness that comes from missing something or someone you love. Why isn’t there a word in English for this, I wonder? Although, I’m totally OK with the borrowings of Saudade and Misslieness for my purposes.
There’s also Schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone from someone else’s misfortune). Especially when Karma shows up to teach someone some manners. Love that.
There are others, of course. Desenrascanço (also from Portuguese: the act of disentangling yourself from a difficult situation using available means). The English equivalent for this has to be MacGuyvering. The catch is that far more people will understand MacGuyvering something, than (and I don’t even know how to use it in a sentence) Desenrascanço. When in doubt, choose the word that will be best received, without sacrificing the laser focus of your meaning. I mean, even in English, I wouldn’t just announce “the thing I miss most about the Bruce Trail is the psithurism” I’d say that I miss the sound of the wind in the trees, and I’d keep my ten dollar word to myself. I still like that I know it, though. I mean, don’t get me wrong – if you try talking down to me first, I’ve got a million dollars worth (and investing more all the time!) of ten dollar words I’ll pull out. Ask the good people of the health clinic – they want to play this game every 3 months. Come at me, bitches. See what happens.
I am a word collector. I turn phrases over in my mind and I put sticky notes in the back of books I read with perfectly captured ideas, wrapped lovingly with exactly the right words. As someone who writes things (at $dayjob as well as here and elsewhere), I know the challenge of knowing when good is good enough. So when someone takes a bagful of words and totally sticks the landing, it’s magic. As a wordnerd, there is glory in the words attached to a thing. It’s why I love compliments about my ability to craft words. When someone appeals to the wordsmith in me, it’s a glorious purpose. Huzzah.
I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between complex language, and well crafted simple language.
One the one hand – legalese, academics who have to prove that they are as smart as they think they are by writing things that only they understand (lookin’ at you, Northrop Frye), and jerks who use language to make other people feel small. I have no disillusions that I’m that person sometimes – usually when someone patronizes me first. On the other – the side I aspire to daily, beautiful prose that is easily digestible by all who read it. Folks like Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl don’t use big words and complex sentence structure. They just tell their stories in a delightful way. And even if you don’t know what a rumpus is, you will, in short order.
When I was in high school, in an English class, we had a creative writing assignment. I wrote about girl watching a boy who didn’t know how she loved him. Yeah, I know… but it wasn’t as on the nose as you’d think. I was talking about the boy’s hair (you have to appreciate that this was in the prime mullet days of the 1980’s. Business in the front, party in the back. But seriously, they all looked like woodland animals), and I said that his hair curled at the collar, untamed by the fixative he used on the rest. I got docked a mark because my evaluator thought that fixative was a poor word choice. Whaa?? No. It was exactly the right word. Pfft. Philistines.
Since then, my vocabulary has grown exponentially, I’m sure to what would be the chagrin of Professor Fixative-hater. I love etymology. I love it when I find the exact right word for something. It’s like when you see clay on a pottery wheel. You spin it, you mold it, and sometimes it flies apart on you. But sometimes, it forms exactly what you wanted.
There’s joy in my world when I find some word, archaic and abandoned to time, that I can resurrect to fight another day (thanks Grandiloquent Word of the Day). Language should be colourful, it should be descriptive and lyrical and a joy to the ear. It should bloom and inspire and spark new ideas and drive language to new and un-discovered places.
My 80’s-ish aunt was telling us recently that she (a voracious reader) had encountered a word she’d never seen before 3 times in 3 different types of media, in one week, and thought that was an odd coincidence. We mused on whether she just didn’t notice it because it wasn’t important to her understanding of something, but once she paid attention to it, she heard it more often. That’s entirely possible.
So where am I going with this? This year, I’m making a list of 20 goals (20 for 2020, get it?!) One of mine is to enjoy reading more and technology less. A fun side-advantage of this is that reading increases your vocabulary.
The average adult has an active vocabulary of 20, 000 words. That doesn’t include the passive words that one knows but doesn’t use. I like to think that I do a decent job taking that passive vocabulary out for a spin. I’ve got an above average vocabulary, and I’m looking to increase it this year. In some cases, you can easily increase your vocabulary by taking up a new hobby and learning the nomenclature attached to that new body of learning. In other cases, you can read a new genre of book. My favourite author (Gregory Maguire) always throws in some words I don’t know, and I’ve got 3 of his books on my reading list this year. This year, I want to confuse the spell checker – I want to add words to my personal dictionary.
OK, Gregory, lets kick this pig.