Friday, July 5, 2013

Word tastings

While watching Clerks with some high school friends during one of my Freshman year college breaks, one of said friends looked at the word that flashed between scenes (it wasn't "Catharsis", as that was towards the end. This happened much more middling, perhaps Perspicacity or Purgation [the Clerks Wikipedia, of course, has a list of the vocabulary title cards]) and said "They're just making words up."

Most of us in the room (okay, at least two of us) turned to him as one. I understand that not everybody has a vocabulary that plumbs quite the depths that mine does, but the words in those Clerks segments...well, they're real words. They're words you've probably heard. For serious. I also understand not everybody has a love affair with words; I don't, necessarily. My fiction is not an intricate tapestry of shining gold threads the way, say, Jeanette Winterson's is. It just isn't my style. But I like savoring them sometimes, like I imagine people do at wine tastings. But with words, you see. Word tastings.

I suppose, really, people with synesthesia might actually taste words. Synesthesia is, in a nutshell, a neurological condition wherein the senses are a bit "scrambled". A sound might have an associated color in a synesthete's mind, or a smell, or a taste. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is called that for a reason, you see. I've also heard that Nabokov was a synesthete, which would make sense for the opening paragraph of Lolita (which I feel is the best of the whole book, in fact.)

I wonder, sometimes, about the difficulties this may or may not cause for people sometimes. What if all the instances which might mean "orange" (color, taste, and smell) do not in fact agree with one another? What if a sound that is supposed to be soothing (a lullaby, say) has an alarming color?

There are some words that I find it almost compulsively fun to exclaim. When I see or hear "chowder", for example, "CHOWDAH!" will frequently be what next comes from my mouth. Courtesy of early Simpsons, of course, which you can view below (hilariously filmed on somebody's TV, now with authentic flicker!)

 There are words I use regularly that sometimes confound people. I was a precocious child (as you may have guessed) and read well above my word level. Words like "castigate" happen in my regular dialogue. Not really so bad of a dictionary word, but not one that everybody knows or uses, either. I'm not sure what word I would use instead, now that I'm trying to think about. "Punish", I guess? Not really the same thing. Or the same weight.

I read, with interest, The Know-it-All, by A.J. Jacobs.  You see, he decided to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary. It is...several volumes long. Very small type. We've got a compact OED at my library which still weighs in at fifteen or more pounds, I'd say, with itty bitty type. Not something I'd do myself; I flip through the dictionary on occasion, seeing where words take me, but I've never read one at length. does nifty word-mappy type stuff, if you want to click around for a few minutes before going back to Cracked or Imagur or whatever.

Do I use "dictionary words" in my writing? Not really. Not unless it's one that comes naturally. I don't seek a new way to say "is". I try to write dialogue, y'know, the way people talk (without going dialectic. Not speaking a dialect myself, really, it wouldn't come naturally enough so as not to interfere with the book. I've seen it work few enough times [Mark Twain, I'm looking at you!] that I'll leave it to people who know what they're doing). Whenever I take one of those cut 'n' paste "I Write Like" Internet quiz jobbies, I've ended up with Stephen King as an answer (though I also just got David Foster Wallace, depending on what paragraph I used). Which is cool, because maybe it means I'll be a kajillionaire based on my writing one of these days.

Wouldn't that be fortuitous?


  1. LOVE Clerks!

    Back in the day when I was a teacher, I'd have the occasional student who complained I used too many "big words". Too bad. While there's certainly something to be said for age-appropriate lessons and interactions, dumbing ourselves down too much only leads to people doing the simple-dog-head-tilt at Kevin Smith movies later on. ;)

    1. Clerks is truly one of the best movies ever.

      ....why would somebody assume complaining to a teacher about "big words" would garner sympathy? Really? Oh, kids.