These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears. – William Shakespeare
The bird is the word. – The Trashmen
I love my job.
I love my job because it’s not my old job. At my old job, you were expected to dress, talk, and act a certain way. You were expected to be a team player.
I love my new job because people would only say “team player” before pretending to barf.
I love my new job because I don’t feel like a fraud. I don’t feel like any minute someone will say, “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” to which I’d feel great shame and relief, like the cheating spouse who deep in their heart, wants to get caught.
I love my new job because I do not feel like a fraud. I feel like I’m with the boyfriend I’m supposed to be with (nice, laid-back, smart, occasionally funny, and very nerdy). I wear jeans and T-shirts every day. There are free snacks in the kitchen.
But mostly I love my job because I get to work with words, and for a writer that’s like the Forbidden City: just one room short of heaven.
My job is to find words – cool words, weird words, words that no one has heard of.
For instance, have you heard of shail? It means “to walk crookedly,” as well as “scarecrow.” Do you know what a wanger is? No, not that! It’s a pillow specifically for one’s cheek. How about serein? It’s “a mist or exceedingly fine rain which falls from a cloudless sky, a phenomenon not unusual in tropical climates.” And a supercilium? It’s an eyebrow!
But maybe you’ve heard of these words. Maybe I’m alone in my amazement.
Call me the Christopher Columbus of semantics.
I really don’t know too many words. I was never interested in words as individuals, only what they could do for me in groups.
I memorized big words for the SATs – I still remember recalcitrant because Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes is unruly and stubborn – but otherwise put together sentences to sound like me talking (or if not me-me, then the writer me, who ironically while silent is much more garrulous than the real-life me, unless the real-life has consumed several shots of espresso), or rather like Judy Blume talking, or Madeleine L’Engle, or Stephen King, or whomever I was reading at the time.
I didn’t pay too much attention to grammar. I knew when stuff sounded right, but ask me something about a misplaced modifier or split infinitive, and I was at a loss.
Which kept me out of junior year honors English. Not because of bad grades from sophomore year honors English (pulled an A minus), but because of the grammar section of the SATs that I just blew by because hey, only the verbal and math counted in the total score, and I was only a 10th grader taking the test for practice.
But my low grammar score was held against me (even though is “good at grammar” really tantamount to “good at literature”?), and the head of the English department, Ms. P., a woman with a voice like sandpaper, said:
“I think you’re better off in the regular English class.”
I may sound totally snotty. Wah, cry, I wasn’t in honors English! But by then I already knew I wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t popular, nor was I an athlete. Math was hard, and I almost failed chemistry.
Words were all I had.
So there I was stuck in “regular English,” which was right next to “honors English,” and because my school was hippy dippy with open classrooms, I got to see all the kids in honors English, my friends and classmates from my other classes (like honors trigonometry, which I somehow got into despite getting a C minus in Algebra II), while I sat with – I’m sorry but it’s true – a lot of dumb head kids, who laughed – LAUGHED – when the teacher read one of my poems aloud.
“A faggot must have written that,” said the star football player, an ugly galut who picked his nose in class and somehow ended up at Princeton.
Of course I was Angry Poet Girl. I had no other choice.
What I’ve come to favor are big words for ordinary things.
Like pandiculation, the act of stretching oneself when fatigued or upon waking. Often accompanied by yawning.
Or sternutation, the act of sneezing.
Or horripilation, the ordinary goosebump.
Or borborygmus, a rumbling in the tummy, which, by the way, is onomatopoeia.
Was that your stomach or mine going bor-bo-RYG-mus?
I grew up speaking both Chinese and English. I don’t remember learning either. I understood my family, and I understood my friends and Sesame Street. Aside from almost speaking in Mandarin once in kindergarten, I didn’t have any trouble.
Well, not much.
Remember Rickel’s, the hardware store? Rhymes with nickel. My father pronounced it “Reeckel.” Like treacle.
It wasn’t till I mentioned to a childhood friend that we were going to Reeckel’s, that I knew I was mistaken.
“Reeckel’s?!” she cried. “It’s not Reeckel’s! It’s Rickel’s.” She laughed. “Reeckel’s.”
We also pronounced the department store Steinbach’s as Stein-BACK’s (although I had no problem saying Johann Sebastian Bach). Till I was eighteen, I thought a nectarine was simply called a nectar. And in my New York City college, I was ridiculed for my mispronunciation of the state capital.
“AL-bany?” my so-called friend kept repeating, guffawing all the while. “AL-bany?”
For I had said AL-bany, as in Al Roker, instead of ALL-bany, as in, “All of you stop laughing and shut the fuck up.”
Words from the Scots are also good.
Like clamjamphrie, low worthless people.
Jouk, to roust or perch.
Spoondrift, “a showery sprinkling of sea-water or fine spray swept from the tops of the waves by the violence of the wind in a tempest, and driven along before it, covering the surface of the sea.”
And stramash, to beat or destroy, which I can only hear in the voice Groundskeeper Willie.
“Ach, I’ll stramash ye clamjamphrie into haggis and sprinkle ye like spoondrift!”
I know: that’s totally racist. Racist to Scots.
Because looking at me, I wouldn’t want people to assume I have an accent, aside from central Jersey. Well, okay, sure looking at me, you might think I have an accent, but once I start talking, it’s obvious that I don’t. It’s pretty obvious that even if I wasn’t born here (which I was), I at least have spent a good part, if not all, of my life here. But despite this very obvious fact, writing professors, such as those who head MFA programs, will think that English is my second language.
They will ask me, because of some quirky grammar (which I blame wholly on Madeleine L’Engle’s weird biblical syntax), “Where were you born? When did you learn to speak English?” and I will answer, in confusion, “Here. When I was two,” and afterward, in utter humiliation, I will go out and get Strunk & White because as with computers, I know how to use language but am less familiar with how it works.
The grammar thing again.
Damn you, Ms. P.
I also like words that sound like one thing, but mean something else.
Divagation is not navigation by divas but a wandering, a digression, a deviation.
An algorism isn’t something Al Gore said but the Arabic system of notation.
A colporteur isn’t someone who goes around singing, “Anything Goes!” but a peddler of religious texts.
A fremd is a stranger.
And I like words that sound like exactly what they are.
Like truelove, cuddlesome, dessert-spoonful, and thumbless.
Like susurrous, a whispering. Suss-sur-rousss. (I speak parseltongue too!)
And I like archaic insults.
You’re such a cudden!
Lay off, criticaster!
And some words are just cool, for no particular reason.
Tricksiness: the state of being tricky.
Anamnesis: a state of reminiscence.
Sweven: a dream.
I have dreamed in Chinese. I dreamed that I was wandering through the rain crying in Mandarin on the phone with my mother, who said nothing because she was too busy playing mah-jongg.
When I lived in China, I dreamed that the man speaking Mandarin below my window was speaking English, and when awoke and found that he was not, I was overwhelmed with homesickness and disappointment.
When I lived in China, I was starved for different languages, the way I was starved for different foods. My ears ate up Korean and Russian as though they were bagels and pad thai.
When I talked to my American friends on the phone, I forgot that they knew English. “They’re kind of xenophobic here,” I said once. “Do you know what that means?”
My friend paused. “I can’t believe you just asked me that.”
From ages 12 to 18, I spoke almost no Chinese. I felt embarrassed, mispronouncing words and tones. Especially tones. There were no lack of Chinese adults who’d laugh in the face of an unsuspecting ABC as she said, “I’m four years old,” (four = si, fourth tone) when clearly she was ten (ten = shi, second tone).
“You’re four?!” some old guy would crow, holding up four arthritic fingers. “Only four?!?”
Those are four fingers you’ll soon be missing, old man. You’ll be the opposite of thumbless.
When I tried speaking Mandarin to my grandmother, it came out French.
“Are your parents home?”
Words of course aren’t everything.
Actions louder. Silence golden. All that.
But sometimes they are.
Like “abandonment” clearly isn’t the same thing as “adultery,” yet some people would have you think it is. Some people would think it perfectly fine to slip one word in for another.
Words unsaid are just as powerful. More so even.
We infuse power into words-that-should-not-be-said.
In China, when my friends visited, the natives thought I was their tour guide. The hawkers tried to get me to bring them over so that they could sell my friends overpriced postcards and fake ancient coins.
But I’d steer my friends away. I wasn’t like Happy, a tour guide who asked me, “When did you begin studying English?” (to which I answered, “When I was 2”), sharing my “business.” This pissed the natives off.
“Ta ma de!” they’d shout at me.
Fuck your mother.
And I’d wince, cheeks burning, while my friends sailed on, the shards of words mere spoondrift to their Mandarin-less ears.
Does a thing exist without a word? Can you think of a thing that doesn’t have one?
How about this*:
It would be impossible to describe how something looks to someone who has never seen. Perhaps after blind people die, they end up on a distant planet where they gain sight. But till then it’s impossible to describe it to them.
Perhaps for those who can see, after we die, we gain something as indescribable.
That indescribable something: there is no word for it.
Then again maybe there is.
Maybe there is a word for “a concept that is indescribable; that for which there are no words.”
I just have yet to find it.
Wish me luck.
*Concept lifted from Madeleine L’Engle’s, A Ring of Endless Light.