For years my favorite word has been quixotic. She’s a marvelous little heiress of a word. She didn’t have to make her own way in the world, work to build her own connotation. She’s named after Cervantes’ legendary windmill slayer, and the Oxford English Dictionary draws connections with the word vagabond. She sounds good too, like mint ice cream, and a loud, old-fashioned oath, and shuffly feet.
My other favorite words are stolen from others. In the play Wit the main character describes the first time she came across the word soporific in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. (All the best words have stories, of course.) The little girl is fascinated to discover that “The bunnies in the picture are sleeping. They’re sleeping like you said, because of sop-or-fic. The illustration bore out the meaning of the word…just as he had explained it. At the time it seemed like magic.” And she moves from there onto John Donne.
There’s also the list from The Cozy Book. “Mumble, Scribble, Sandal, Muzzle, Alabama, Cuspidor and Orphan Annie, Pachysandra, Sarsparilla, Tusk and smug and fog, Galoshes, Ambidextrous, Henrietta, Amble, Dawdle, Wobble, Mosey, Listen, Cousin, (Close to cozy),Superstition, Baked Alaska, Dandelions, Hummingbirds, Busybody, Dillydally, Ali Baba—Cozy words.”
And just now flipping through the OED I found the word shriven. That’s one I haven’t known for long, but I love it. It sounds like it lives at the heart of everything truly good, and it does.
But I’ll tell you a secret. It easy to think of lovable words, but it is far easier to think of unlovable ones. Pull out your psychology textbook or your latest tax return or even your saved texts and you will find them: words which have had their livelihood confiscated. Words which are no longer permitted to mean anything to anybody, to be colored in some brave, bright or bilious way, but only to be a code, destined to be deciphered by the brain and summarily discarded. Most can be resurrected if one is willing to stop and eat them slowly, but some are quite dead and one must replace them with their first cousins. What follows is a post mortem.
UNNECESSARY (un-needful, not full of need, not desirous of action); FULL (abundant, fitting, “…it is fitting and right, its out constant duty at all times and in all places…”); TRANSCRIPT (across the written word, a ship skimming over ink to deliver the message, the meaning, the truth); LIKE (bearing a likeness to, as He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, we are to bear likeness to Him); COMMON (as in the Book of Common Prayer, and Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, the commonalities which bind us); ORIGINALLY (beginning, birth, that from which we inevitably derive our meaning); DEMONSTRATION (manifest action, letting words live, living oneself); SECURE (do not think of safety, but why you desire safety, of what and for what?) GRADUALLY (gradient, sloping, speeding down a grassy hill not so gradually after all); CONFIRM (with assurance, understanding, a setting of records); PREVIOUS (before, progenitor, parent to the now); COMPLETE (“He said, ‘It is finished!’ And bowing His head He gave up His spirit.”)
It is the connotation which makes all the difference, you see. We need denotations to communicate, connotations to do everything else, to express. A word without connotation has, as yet, no color. It has not lived. Bathroom for example, means simple body functions to most of us, but really it’s the sanctuary of the bathtub, the place of solitude and hour-long wonderings. (I planned this entry in the bath.) Also, my grandparents use the word costly instead of expensive, and I find it vaguely enchanting. What does expensive mean anyway? Out of thoughtfulness? I like taking words apart and putting them back together and seeing how much bigger they become. It’s filling, satisfying, right.
For real, thirst-quenching language here is a sonnet from my favorite word dismantler, stitcher, piler and occasional word-welder, Gerard Manley Hopkins:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.