I am in love with words. I think anyone who has made a living as a writer must feel something of the same.
But for me, it is not just the filial love one has for the mother tongue, it is the Tristram and Isolt, Abelard and Heloise sort of thing. I feel passion for some words — words that break my tongue across them, fill my cheeks as I say them — like “a strenuous tongue bursting Joy’s grape against its palate fine.” Talking, like eating, can be an erotic experience.
English is so rich, with its multiple inheritance from Celtic, Germanic and Romance languages, it might as well be chocolate.
“Chocolate,” by the way, was originally an Aztec word. English picks up its sexiness partly through its exoticisms.
Take “sexagesimal” from the Latin, “ketchup” from Chinese, “pajama” from the Hindi, “kiosk” from Turkish, “yam” from Africa, “alcohol” from Arabic, “berserk” from Old Norse. The language is nothing if not promiscuous.
French is called the language of love, but I cannot warm up to the sound of it. It is too smooth, all its edges are worn off. Italian and Spanish come forth in a torrent. Some languages flow out of the mouth like spring water, but English is chunky style; its consonants give texture.
I think you can tell the true word lover from the showoff by which kind of word he chooses.
Take the late William Buckley. His vocabulary was immense, but I cannot take him for a genuine lover of English. He larded his prose with sesquipedalian hendecasyllables — a propensity for latinate neologisms and lexicographic arcana so impenetrable you would swear you were translating Vergil.
He was pure showoff. He abused the language, even when his words were ineluctably precise. There were times you have to sit back and admire his hot-dogging, but I no more believe it is love of his art that moves him than the bravura virtuoso who can bang out all the notes of a Liszt concerto without ever finding the music in it.
Another showoff is Lawrence Durrell. His Alexandria Quartet is a great piece of fiction, but I have always been unsettled by his insistence on dredging up tenpenny words.
In the first chapter of Justine, you can find “aniline,” “etiolated,” “pegamoid,” “adventive,” “lambence,” “ululations,” “exiguous” and “exigent.” To this day, I have never found “pegamoid” — or anything close — in any dictionary, no matter how unabridged.
You get the feeling he expended many hours of lucubration in the accumulation and exhibition of his erudition.
Words full of bone and bite
But take Shakespeare. He uses more words than any other English writer. His vocabulary is huge — more than 22,000 words — yet, even when he is showing off, he is likely to stick to short ones.
The “To be or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet,” for instance, is 275 words long, out of which 222 are one-syllable. Whole lines go by with nothing but popping monosyllables:
“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come . . .”
“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time . . .”
In the whole speech, only 18 words are more than two syllables long, and only five are four syllables. Nothing longer.
Certainly, the Bard can sling out a “multitudinous seas incarnadine” when he wants, but the power of his speech comes not from Rome, but from English soil, where the short word has deep roots in Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Celtic antiquity.
The language offers such baroque concretions as “borborygmus,” “tintinnabulation” and “hemidemisemiquaver,” but what greater effect have “gurgle,” “clang” and “blip.” The crunch of such words on the teeth is sybaritic, more sensuous than their length in flat ink on a flat page.
Perhaps that is what I am most excited about: that language be recited aloud, that its physical reality in the mouth be remembered. That is hard to do when storing your prose on a thumb drive.
Perhaps if more people read their words aloud — and had the ear to hear them — there would be less bad writing published, and less bilge spoken by public figures.