If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Wednesday 13 February 2013
Read gnomica 1-250 here!
One forgets words as one forgets names.
One’s vocabulary needs constant fertilizing or it will die.
Evelyn Waugh (28 Oct 1903 – 10 Apr 1966)
Here this famous and brilliant British writer clearly addresses himself to the logophiles of the world. Logophiles? Kind of like bibliophiles, both structurally and – faintly – semantically, if you see what I mean. The initial element ‘log-’ is familiar enough from John 1.1: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος … En archē ēn ho logos … “In the beginning was the word …” . This statement as such is theological, to be sure, and that is perhaps not the precise referent Waugh (though a serious convert to Roman Catholicism) had in mind here, but I still think I could be allowed to make a case for taking it as also a sound statement about the beginnings of a lot of things: what, really, would we be if it were not for the word, for words, for these wondrous vehicles which enable us to articulate our worlds – words into worlds — inner as well as outer, to ourselves and to our fellow beings?
We would, I suspect, be so much the poorer for that incapacity.
Readers of these blog entries who have been around a while are certainly aware of my own great fascination with language, and words in particular (e.g., here, here, here). In this connection I point, for example and (I admit) not without pride, to my favorite neologism I created some years ago: here!
The ultimate source of this general fascination is no doubt my Mother, an author of romance novels (in Swedish – e.g., here, here, here) during the early forties who was fluent in half a dozen languages and herself almost obsessively interested in words and their etymologies. I recall a blackboard she had nailed up on a wall in the hallway of the house we lived in at one point during junior high school, and on this board would appear two or three times a week English words my brother and I were to look up in the dictionary. Their meanings were to be memorized (in today’s enlightened educational climate, of course, this benighted, creativity-killing insistence on memorization would surely have landed her in jail for child abuse – but it was the dark ages back in the day), and as best we could we were to report something about their etymology and any other interesting and relevant facts (e.g., noun, verb, adjective, what?). Just imagine if we’d had access to Google on the internet back then!!
I actually recall feeling put upon to have to do these ‘chores’ along with all the other important things I had on my bulging agenda … at first, but, to be honest, it soon got to be something I – and little bro — really enjoyed, and I guess that ‘imprinting’ stuck with me over the years. Hardly a day goes by even now that I don’t look up some word or other in some language, and today I do have the internet and that mahvellous subscription to the online OED, and all kinds of other free online dictionaries in any language you’d want. What could keep a logophile happier than that?
One of my favorite courses to teach while I was still doing that gig was a large lecture class on Greek and Latin elements in English vocabulary – my Mother would have loved it – and I know it opened some minds up to the sheer pleasure of words, just words, words just for the fun of it – over and above helping on various GRE tests.
There is no doubt in my mind that Waugh was absolutely correct about the need to sustain life support for one’s vocabulary by constant fertilizing of one’s lexical garden – and there are certainly worse ways to spend one’s crepuscular days.
Finally, the business about forgetting “words as one forgets names” suggests to me that we need likewise water and tend to our onomastic [do check here!] garden lest it too, along with all those persons whom its plants designate, die away from our minds and our hearts, a thought much too sad to contemplate as we weed through the quotidian obituaries.