Tuesday, 19 June 2012


I love words.

I love playing with words, experimenting with them and discovering new ones. I love the shape of words, the texture of words, the shades and tones of words. I love how different words feel different in the mouth, sit differently in the mind and rest differently in the soul. I love how the same words differently arranged convey such different meanings – and I love how the meaning of words swells and grows through experience and relationship. A picture may well ‘paint a thousand words’, but I love the way a single word can expand and hold the power to fling wide a window onto panoramic vistas in my mind and heart.

In the English language we are blessed with an extraordinarily rich assortment of words, which is just as well for me since I am an abysmal linguist, as my long-suffering O level French teacher would attest.

I don't think there is anything quite like the satisfaction of finding exactly the right word in a given situation. Perhaps it’s like the feeling of striking a ball precisely with the sweet spot of your racquet, but I’m pretty convinced I’ve never done that. Or maybe of easing the final piece into a jigsaw puzzle to see the completed picture, but I’ve not really done that since we bought a mega puzzle of a herd of zebra at a watering hole on our honeymoon. Why we thought it would be a pleasant occupation for a honeymoon I’ve no idea! Compulsive and impossibly stressful, we risked putting an end to our marriage before it had begun until we firmly broke up the small amount successfully connected and consigned the whole lot to the bottom of the suitcase never to see the light of day again.

Sometimes the right word simply presents itself, flowing smoothly into the mind and off the tongue or onto the page. At other times a bit of excavation is needed to unearth it. And then there's the times when there is the need for a major search and rescue mission - either because the exact word with the right nuance remains obstinately elusive, or because lethologica strikes and seems to delete even the most common of words from your memory banks. Of course, it does help to be able to tell yourself you are suffering from a sudden attack of lethologica – a useful word recently added to our family’s vocabulary.
lethologica (n): the inability to remember a word or put your finger on the right word 
So much more impressive than forgetfulness. Impressive or not, though, there is nothing quite like the frustration of chasing the tail of a word disappearing in your mind, or glimpsing its shadow but being unable to find its substance. At such times I must admit that the temptation to make up my own word becomes increasingly appealing. Unfortunately this word concoction enterprise rarely proves particularly successful, unless it comes about by accident.

In family life it seems that some words just do come about without deliberate intent and then become so normal that it seems astonishing that they are not in general usage. ‘Unky’ is one example of this in our family. We all know what we mean if we say something is ‘unky’. It usually applies to the texture of food – something with some substance to it but not at all the same as ‘chunky’. When it was first coined I’ve no idea, but over the years it’s found its niche.

Other common words are consistently misapplied so that they take on a whole new meaning – a ‘bunk’ of cheese, for instance. This I know began with our daughter one lunch time when she was very little, wanting her cheese separate from her bread and butter rather than sliced and made into a sandwich. Whether she meant to say a ‘chunk’ or a ‘hunk’ or a ‘block’ or a ‘lump’, I knew exactly what she was asking and, ever since, cheese can be either grated, sliced or in a ‘bunk’ in this household.

Of course, there are always the mispronunciations and contractions of childhood that linger. Through the years ‘gloves’ have truly become ‘gloves’, but those tall spires of purpley-pink bell-shaped flowers that appear in our woodlands and hedgerows in early summer will always be ‘foxgubs’.

And then there are the transmutations that occur through some kind of association. Our oldest son proved to be an expert at these, probably revealing something about how his brain is wired. One day at a toddlers’ group he was offered a drink that was new to him. Finding it very much to his taste, he presented himself in the kitchen the next morning declaring that he wanted some ‘brown carrot’. I confess it was the work of more than a moment to realise that what he really wanted was a drink of ‘blackcurrant’.

The one I cherish the most, however, emerged on a trip to the New Forest. The Forest is bounded with cattle grids on every road and as we juddered over one, true to my childhood tradition, I shouted out, “cattle grid!” Our little boy was interested and we talked a bit about what they were and why they were there, before stopping for a walk and a chance to see New Forest ponies from up close. As we returned to the car he suddenly turned and asked, “Where’s the ‘teapot bridge’?” We were stymied until suddenly light dawned. Evidently in the process of his mind trying to take hold of and remember something new, ‘cattle’ had become ‘kettle’ which then became ‘teapot’. That ‘grid’ had become ‘bridge’ was not so surprising, we had crossed over it after all. And so the ‘teapot bridge’ was born. How can I ever return to the pedestrian, uninspiring ‘cattle grid’? They will always be 'teapot bridges' to me.

I guess this is all part of the wonder of words in relationship. Such words used well evoke shared memory, strengthen connection and kindle enjoyment. Used badly, of course, they can become graceless and exclusive.

Using words well can come in different guises. I had an aunt who was particularly gifted with the beautifully turned phrase. I remember noticing how these phrases had an almost visual quality as they slid into conversation unobtrusively at first, but then seemed to set up a gleaming residence in the air. I was young and not much of a participant in these conversations, but the observer in me was entranced. Clearly she enjoyed words and used them like a sculptor, shaping them for beauty and for impact.

In a different way, my Dad, her brother, has a wonderful ability to express the profound with simplicity, using words that communicate directly and accessibly. Only possible with a depth of understanding and wisdom, he also knows exactly when to stop.

The world of words is filled with wonderful variety and possibility – of wit and wisdom, of the sublime and the ridiculous, of the ordinary and extraordinary, of fantasy and reality. Yet I think, above all, that the thing I love the most is when words used well engender deep connection between people, until the words themselves recede to frame a silence where communication becomes communion – and no words speak a thousand words and more…

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