Words, words, words.
What we feel and want, demand, require
are all expressed in words.
The written word, the spoken word, modem, internet
are ways to know each other.
Words engender words.
Create, produce, grow like a vine around a thought.
Define its shape, explore, insinuate, envelop.
A word – an offshoot – of the word that came before.
Words. Not just spoken but written. The spoken word is ephemeral, gone as soon as it is uttered. Just see what Salviati had to say about the written word in 1632 in Galileo’s Dialogo, a book that was then banned by the Inquisition.
“But above all stupendous inventions, what eminence of mind was his who imagined he could find a way to communicate his inmost thoughts to any other person, even if separated by vast intervals of space and time? To speak with people in the Indies, to speak with those who are not yet born and will not be for a thousand or ten thousand years? And with such ease? All by the different arrangements of twenty little letters on a page”
This is truly one of the miracles that mark human beings, their capability to be wordsmiths and forge sentences and thoughts with just those twenty (or 24) little letters.
If there ever was a wordsmith, you were one, Leo Steinberg. I know how you labored over every sentence, searching for just the right word, attentive not to repeat yourself. You even invented words and I can imagine that you and James Joyce would have happily talked the night away over a glass of wine. We never did talk about Calvino the few times I came to see you as you were working on your latest theory on the nudes in the background of Michelangelo’s Holy Family. I wish now we had. There were books and books, words and words, lining the walls in your apartment. I was impressed, dear Leo, when you pulled out a book to check a fact and noted that the previous time you had consulted it was ten years ago, annotated on the flyleaf.
Could we say that books are language made visible? I miss you, Leo, for you would have had much to say on the subject.
We write and speak, and our tools are words. Books speak to us from the written page mostly via words. Although pictures and diagrams and mathematical formulas also have voices of their own. In a sense it is all summed up in the dictionary, that most marvelous of books that tells me not only what a word means – using of course other words to do so – and where it comes from. How many of us are used to saying: oh let’s check in Webster’s when we are unsure of a meaning.
I don’t generally check, though in the great big gilt-edged Webster’s, which came with the apartment when I moved to Orvieto. It originally belonged to a cardinal, Bonaventura Cerretti, who lived here in the 1920s. I can’t help but wondering if he ever looked anything up, for a colleague of his said that he was known for never having read a book, except for when he was studying to take his vows. There are a couple of pages missing, so someone must have used it and it lists the US presidents up to Harding, elected in 1921. So, there you have it.
I find it fascinating that the two most authoritative dictionaries were the brainchildren of lexicographers who came from relatively humble families. Noah Webster’s father was a weaver, yet he graduated from Yale and firmly believed in America as opposed to England. “How proud you are, Noah Webster, that your American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828, whereas the Oxford English Dictionary, in a sense the child of James A.H. Murray, was not published till 1884.” Sir Murray’s (he was knighted later in life) father too belonged to the working class for he was the village tailor. Both families fortunately recognized that their sons were incredibly intelligent and determined.
Being American, I, of course, grew up with Webster’s and spelled words American style, color instead of colour. “As the Father of American Scholarship and Education, you certainly agreed with Sir James A.H. Murray, whose lifelong work was the Oxford dictionary, that languages are like the weather, ever changing and quite unpredictable. It is truly to your merit, Noah Webster, that you insisted that youngsters learn how to spell. A good thing, I’d say. Wish that were still the case! Are spelling bees still the vogue?
“Despite your differences, I imagine that both you and Sir James Murray will wonder, when you overhear young people talking to each other nowadays, how oldsters like me can understand any of what they say.” “Stoked”? Now what does that mean? Enthusiastic, I’m told. And it goes back to 1965. Guess I am getting to be an old fogey if I don’t know words like that. I wish I could eavesdrop on your comments.
There we go. Eavesdrop. Another interesting word of which we know the meaning, but we have to check either with Noah Webster or Sir Murray to find out why it means what it does. Would never have thought it had anything to do with someone lurking under the eaves to hear a secret conversation and that it dates back at least to the 1700s.
Words and how they were used and when they first appeared can also become the motivating element for a person’s life. As it was for Dr. Minor, a collaborator of yours, Sir James, interned in an asylum for the criminally insane. A fascinating story also turned into a movie. I lent my book on the making of the Oxford dictionary, The Professor and the Madman, to a friend in Seattle but I’m sure it will eventually come home to roost. Even though my more recent experiences lead me to conclude that books are not to be lent, but only given.
All kinds of books. All kinds of readers (or non-readers). All kinds of dictionaries. I have one on synonyms dating to 1880. And others that give you all the quirks of phrases and how in one language they may mean one thing, but in another change meaning completely. Take eventually. In English it is the equivalent of in the end or after a while. In Italian on the other hand eventualmente means possibly. Beware of false friends, as they are called.
Frequently I will run into a word I had never been aware of, and of course thereafter it continues to pop up in whatever I am reading. Such as lipogram. Or there may be words like dystopian, which I hadn’t ever heard until some months ago, and I continually have to check out its true meaning.
Of all the books I have, perhaps the one I would choose to keep me company on a desert island is a dictionary, with its never-ending possibilities. I can’t help thinking though that without my man Friday it wouldn’t be nearly as stimulating.
Every time I turn to the Internet, someone has written a new book on the history and evolution of the English language. I have though sworn not to add to my collection, for I am supposed to be divesting. Besides which, alas, dear books, much of what you have to say has been supplanted by the computer, where it is so much faster to find a word. Although the pleasure of running into companion words as I turn the pages of a real paper book cannot be matched.
3 thoughts on “Words Words Words”
Guilty: ‘The Professor and the Madman’ Is in Seattle with me. Of course you lent it to me just before the pandemic and it like us is now quarantined here indefinitely. I love your whole piece about words and the dictionary-I was raised in Montana and I read the dictionary as a child the way some people read the ‘rise and fall of the Roman empire’-which I also did read as a kid – both of them exotic fantastic voyages into etymology and tangentially history.
Love from James in Seattle
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I love this.
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I love this piece which sent me scurrying to the dictionary to verify the meaning of a favorite word that I will now use in a sentence: How lucky I am to have, in you, an incomparable wordsmith as a friend and Writing Partner!
As E.B. White said about his Charlotte, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” She and you, Erika, are both.
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