Words: A Love Story

Most readers and writers are, in the deepest parts of our souls, word lovers. We love how the right word can express with absolute perfection an elusive emotion; we love how certain words roll around in our mouths and drip from our lips; we love seeing sound and meaning put together to create a kind of linguistic music–whether in the form of poetry or prose or (for those who are particularly savvy) in everyday conversation. There are many things I love in my life, but I would have to say that words are my first love.

I was reminded of this love just recently by my eleven year old daughter, who in the middle of a conversation about a deep sea documentary we had just watched, suddenly pulled out a notebook and started writing.

“What are you doing?” I asked

“I’m adding ‘phosphorescence’ to my list of favorite words.” She replied.

I don’t know why I was initially surprised to find that my book-loving daughter has a book filled with words she has come across and loved; after all, don’t all we readers and writers have a similar list of our own most-loved words somewhere? We may not keep it written down in a book like my daughter does, but we all have it, that list, somewhere in our minds. Even if we aren’t aware of it ourselves, I’m willing to bet that our friends and family are aware of it. They know which words are on our list of favorites because those are the words we use as often as we can in conversation. These are the words we say slowly, so we can savor them. These are the words that make us pause when we come across them in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. These are the words that give us a little thrill deep down in our soul.

Some people like long and complicated words, some like the razor-sharp short words, some are partial to the way certain sounds mingle and caress each other, and some like a word simply for its meaning. As for me, my list is a mixture of all of these. Here are a few of my favorites:

Palimpsest (for what it means and the way it sounds)
Dissonance (it gives me a frisson just to say it!)
Cacophony (again, it makes such a joyful noise)
Woo (who can say this word without giggling and loving it?)
Tipsy (never drunk, only tipsy)
Thistle and Epistle (there’s something about that /stle/ sound that I just love)

I don’t want to bore my readers with too many, but oh it makes me happy just to see those words on a page!

As much as I love words in and of themselves, I love even more when I come across an author who can do with words what a conductor can do with an orchestra. The first authors who come to mind are, perhaps logically, the poets. Gerard Manley Hopkins is a poet who has always seemed to me to play with words, as if he is reveling in them like a delighted child. Who can read “The Windhover” without wanting to say some of those lines aloud:

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,        
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion        
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

I can’t help but fall in love with the lines “my heart in hiding/ Stirred for a bird,” or “ah my dear,/ Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.”

Two other authors who are not poets, but who may as well be they make my heart sing so with their prose, are Vladimir Nabokov and Kamila Shamsie. Nabokov plays with language the way Hopkins does, and has what may be the best first lines of a novel ever in Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta; the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

As for Shamsie, her prose seems less like children playing and more like scented jasmine growing rampant out of fertile soil–tendrils curling ever so slowly around one-another, pale pink buds against a jungle of dark green, until white flowers burst open by the thousands, star-like. I’m not sure I can choose just one short example to give, as the joy of her prose comes not from one sentence here or there, but from her prosaic beauty sustained throughout the entirety of the book. Perhaps I can give a small glimpse, however, with this sample from my favorite of her novels, Kartography:

   “‘You know, if I wasn’t me, you wouldn’t be you.’
   “Odd. No matter where I begin, that line finds its way into my narrative so very early on, and forces linearity to give way to a ramble of hindsight. This is the worst of our ways of remembering–this tendency to prod the crust of anecdote in the hope of releasing a gush of piping-hot symbolism.”

Shamsie’s prose is luxury and subtlety existing in wedded bliss. Her craft is so well done it’s almost too easy to miss, until you emerge from her story feeling hypnotized, rested, and satisfied.

Oh yes, I have been in love with words for as long as I can remember–since I first read (or had read to me) the first pages of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline; “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines/ Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…” From this auspicious beginning things have only gotten better. Through ecstasy and agony, work and play, friends and lovers, marriage and children; words have been the longest and strongest love affair of my life. Whether I’m searching for a way to anger or inspire, captivate or comfort, words have never let me down. This is my ode–my valentine–to them.

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