Sunday, January 16, 2011


In my better moments, I like to consider myself a reasonably educated young lad, but to discover, at my age, five years short of forty, that one's own language contains common words in rotation that furrow your brow and give you great pause is a humbling experience.

Humiliating? Well, I wouldn't say that. (Though I brood on it here.) As Spike Lee says in Mo' Better Blues: "I went to school; I can read." I would like to believe that my language is familiar, even intimate, with parts of myself that increase with age or experience. We've been through a lot, English and me. (Or is it 'English and I'? More confusion continues.)

Yet I read two books recently, one after the other, one fiction, one non-fiction, both by Irish writers -- The Untouchable, a novel by John Banville, and Are you Somebody?, a memoir by Nuala O'Fablain, and both contain words I've heard not once my life.

Here's a list:

dosshouse; chilblains; taoiseach; striations; embrasure; ostrichism; saurian; greensward; osseous; phthisic; propinquity; crapulous; benison; posy; pachydermal; cerculean; incunabuke; bridly; ferrule; oleaginous.

Still with me?

Some of them are vaguely familiar, but not familiar enough for me to hazard a guess as to their precise definition. And, let's be clear: these were not extracted from tomes that were made for scientific consumption, or computer textbooks -- these are words spliced and excised from books that are meant to be read. Enjoyed, even.

At first, reading the Banville book, coming across a couple of new words, I thought nothing of it. Happens from time to time, right? And the dude's Irish, so what the hell. You could read the sentence twice, three times, suss out the context, whatever. Do what I've told my students to do, and do what I've done with Japanese so damn often: Figure it out, take a leap, make an educated guess, figure out the context. All that dross.


As the novel went on, so, too, did these new words extend and invade my meek fractured psyche. New to me, they were. Apparently, not new to the Irish! Readers, obviously, who were assumed to be comfortable, even casual, if not intimate, with the nub of their nuances and cant of their subtext. I've always believed that the great British writers have had an education that soaks them in words and their textures in a way that puts us colonials to shame. Reading books like these two, mass-market texts designed to be loved, only confirms my essential, intrinsic smallness.

We all understand that there's technical words that elude and escape our comprehension and ease. Leave that lexicon to the computer programmers and mechanics who fix our lives faults. And good riddance, I say! Who wants to be locked inside the confined, stifling cell which contains a computer's vocab, or a car's thousand parts.

But a novel!

I retreat into a novel or memoir to breathe a new world, to relax in a stream that flows through the falls and rough patches but lifts me aloft. Instead, with these new words! What to say? I'm dragged right back down, into the overflowing whirlpool of my own ignorance. (That wet, drowning place!)

I guess I must make it my challenge. Not to be intimidated. Not to cower. To attack these fresh definitions and syntax with a warrior's raw spirit. Approach them, cautiously, in the same way a hunter steps softly towards his close prey. Confident that soon a shot will ring out, and the deer will be his.

(And I'll pretend that I won't hear the muffled, giggling guffaws of a million Irish at play in the language I love, the one that still shows me who's boss.)