Saturday, December 03, 2005


Entering a new country, living in a new country, I'm always struck by one simple, somewhat stupid observation: This has been here all along! All of this! The people and the cars and the mountains and the malls! While I was over there, all of this was over here! Going on! Ongoing!

We tend to think that where we are is where it's at. And it is. But there's all this other shit going on that exists on a simultaneous plane of existence, next door, close, but accessed rarely, if at all.

The same goes for words.

There's a lot of words I don't know. English words, that is. I'm not talking about Icelandic or Ukranian or Welsh or Finnish -- I don't know any of those words. It's one of my pet theories, the one about everybody being almost completely illiterate, because most people only know one, two, languages, but there's hundreds and hundreds of languages, so almost everybody is illiterate in most of them.

But let's focus on English. It's what you and I know best. But every now and then I come across a word that I've never heard before. Just the other day I ran into 'chiliastic'. This professor was using this word to compliment a book explaining why Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and all I could think was: You blowhard twit.

I mean, 'chiliastic'. Come on. I consider myself fairly well-read; I went to school. But I've never, ever come across the word 'chiliastic' in any kind of book, and it's one of those words that academics use to prove that they're smart and erudite. (That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)

Or 'pulchritude'. This one I found in Jane Smiley's novel Horse Heaven. She's a graceful, elegant storyteller who, every and now then, throws in a word like this. I'm reading along, thinking I'm smart, thinking I'm sophisticated, and then I come across 'pulchritude', and I'm reminded once again that I'm a hick from St.Catharines.

Ah, but here's the thing. Here's the thing, goddamnit.

They're real, those words. They exist. I found them, whole and complete. They were there, in an old dictionary on the shelf where I'm living, the beat-up kind, the kind your grandfather keeps on the shelf in his den, way up top, above the stack of National Geographics. I flipped through the pages, and sure enough, there they were: 'chiliastic' and 'pulchritude.'

How long had they been waiting there, those words? Decades, I'm thinking. I would bet that nobody in the house I'm staying at had opened those books to find those words. Somebody, years ago, had proofread those words, and they had been inserted into the dictionary, and that dictionary had been typset, had been bound, had been released for sale, and there they sat. Those words. For years and years, nobody had looked for them. Nobody had asked how they were, or sent them cookies. They just sat there, in black and white. Waiting. Patient.

Until the day I liberated them. I flipped through those pages, and suddenly there they were, and their function in life, their purpose in life, had been validated. They were not meant to be forgotten in a dusty book on a rackety shelf. They flew up from the page and into my mind. They acquired a new life.

I felt proud of those words. They had attained the kind of glory they must have been seeking all along. They could now die a dignified death. They had been used.

I put the dictionary back on the shelf and looked at it for awhile. So many other words, waiting to be read. A parallel world that had existed next to my own for so long, invisible only because of my ignorance. Those words, all of them, page after page, weren't asking for much, really -- just a bit of time and attention. And yet, how could I validate them all?

I can't; there's not enough time. I had to turn away from that shelf and go back to my life.

There the book sat, and I could feel those words staring at my back as I walked away. We all just want to be acknowledged.


Jim said...

Chiliastic I would have thought
was a word made up by advertisers
selling a new brand of chili.Never
saw that word before.Pulchritude
however I always thought was a rather common run of the mill type english word.Especially to those of us schooled in our adolescence
by Hugh Hefner and the playboy advisor.

Ariel1980 said...

I've recently been enamored by "detritus".

Anonymous said...

That's funny because I've recently been pondering the same thing. I didn't realize how many words I just skim over when reading without really knowing what they mean until I made a conscious effort to look for and look up any words I saw that I couln't define. I found it too tedious and had to give it up as it took away from my enjoyment of the books I was reading. I'll have to wow people at cocktail parties some other way...