When I was in second or third grade, we had weekly lists of vocabulary words to learn, lists of ten or a dozen new words. And we were assigned to write sentences using these words. And me, being a smartass even back then, I worked hard each week to write a single sentence using all ten words. Even now I’m not sure if I did it to be clever or because I was lazy and didn’t want to write ten sentences.
But when I look back on it, I realize it was a dead give-away clue that I would later earn my crust by becoming a writer. I loved words, and I loved using words.
Other kidlings might groan when the teacher picked up the chalk to diagram sentences, but I loved those underlines and slants, those networks of adjectives and conjunctions. It was fun, like doing a crossword puzzle or connecting the dots.
When I was young enough, before the cutoff date for it, I didn’t learn words so much as acquire them. But even when it later took the effort, I still did my best to expand my word trove.
And as I grew into adolescence and I read constantly — everything from Lew Wallace to the backs of cereal boxes — I continued to absorb words. I would sometimes pore over a dictionary, picking out new and intriguing words. They were not merely signifiers of semantic meaning, but entities in and of themselves. Others might go “ooh” and “aww” over a puddle of newborn kittens, I did the same thing over bits of verbal amber and gleam.
It did not seem at all odd when the ailing pulp writer Philip Marlow in The Singing Detective asked his nurse, “What’s the loveliest word in the English language? In the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page?” His answer was “elbow.” That would not have been mine, but I’m not sure I could have chosen. Words have a taste in the mouth, and however much one might like foie gras, one cannot do without ripe peaches or buttered asparagus. I loved all words, fair and foul. And I loved the mouth-feel of them, like a perfect custard.
British polymath Stephen Fry often tells the story (perhaps too often) of how when he was a wee bairn, he saw on the small black-and-white TV in his home the 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest. He was struck by a line spoken by Algernon: “I hope, Cecily, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection.”
“How unbelievably beautiful,” Fry says. “The swing, balance and rhythm. I’d known you could use language to say, ‘May I please be excused to go to the washroom,’ or ‘I want some more,’ but the idea that it could be used to dance, to delight, to enthrall — it was new to me.”
And Fry became what he called “a celebrant and worshipper at the altar of language.”
For me, it wasn’t Wilde, but James Joyce, first reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was in high school and being swept along in a tidal current of language. “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo …”
We had been taught in grade school to speed read, along with a dreadful little machine that mechanically drew a rod down along a page, drawing one to move line by line in a forced march through the text; we would then be tested on our comprehension. Day by day, the guide rod was moved more and more speedily down the page, making us read faster and faster, until we could skim and recall very well, thank you.
But that wasn’t the kind of reading that gave me physical, bodily pleasure. And when I came across books like Joyce’s, I slowed down. I could not read them without hearing the words in my head. Without feeling them on my tongue and teeth.
A sentence such as our introduction to our hero in Ulysses cannot be read merely for sense. It has to be understood for its music, almost ecstatic, like Handel’s Zadok the Priest or Beethoven’s Great Fugue: “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” Your tongue creates phonic choreography in your mouth as you form those words.
I remember when I was perhaps 24 or 25, reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and stumbling on so many odd and eccentric words, that I kept a notepad next to my desk to write down such words as I underlined in my copies of the books (yes, I write in my books. If you don’t write in the margins or underline passages, you haven’t really read the book). “Pegamoid,” “ululation,” “usufruct,” “exiguous,” chthonic,” “etiolation,” “boustrophedon,” “tenebrous,” “crepitating,” “cachinnation,” “comminatory,” and, apropos our current resident of the White House, “troglodyte.” (Another great word to remember in this regard is the title of a satiric philippic by Seneca the Younger — “apocalocyntosis” the “Pumpkinification,” in the original of the emperor Claudius, but our case of the Great Orange Boor.)
You probably have to be young to read Durrell, when you still hold idealistic and romantic expectations, and to put up with the prose pourpre, but my word-hoard grew. It became something of a joke when I wrote for my newspaper, where I’m sure the copy editors were laughing at me for using six-dollar words like chocolate sprinkles on a donut. I used them because I loved them, and because they were precise: When you develop a ripe vocabulary, you learn there are no synonyms in the English language: Each word carries with it a nimbus of connotation, a flavoring or a shade that makes it the right or wrong word for the context. No matter how close their dictionary definitions, words are not simply interchangeable.
Anyway, I had my little joke back on the copy editors. For a period of about six months back in the 1990s, every story I wrote had in it a word I plain made up. My game was to see if I could sneak them past the copy desk. Some were onomatopoeic, some were Latinate or Hellenic portmanteaus, some were little more than dripping streams of morphemes. And, to my utter delight, every one of them made it through the editors. A few were questioned, but when I explained them, they were permitted. Looking back, I regret this persistent joke, because it was aimed at that little-praised but admirable set of forgotten heroes, who have many times saved my butt when I wrote something stupid. Let me express my gratitude for them; everyone needs a copy editor.
Occasionally, when I have an empty moment, and I don’t have access to a crossword puzzle, I will sit and write lists of words as they come to my brain. Each word has its own cosmos of meaning, an electron-cloud of ambiguity and precision, its emotional scent, its sound and its fury. As I write them down, I savor each one, like an hors d’oeuvre. Such lists, in their way, are my billets doux to my native tongue, which has fed me both spiritually and financially over many decades.