This post is the first in a series that I am working on which discusses words, the very building blogs of a writer’s work. Join me today as I discuss some of my favorite words, interesting facts about the English language, and cultural observations about language from when I lived in Zinacantan and began learning Tzotzil.
Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” (letter to George Bainton, Oct 1888). It is a wonderful quote, with a startling, beautiful image, and captures well the importance of finding the right word. As a poet, I have a particular love of words and finding the right one to convey an emotion, moment or image. Do I want to describe the trees as having bony fingers? Or slender ones? One of my favorite words is quiescence. It reminds me of the surface of a still pond. Senescence and evanescence are also beautiful. Interestingly, my dad and my sister hate the word moist, it makes them shudder. (I read somewhere that moist has a similar effect on other people, and that particular words can cause some people to fell sick. Do any of you have aversions to certain words?). In Spanish, some of my favorite words are tierra, arcoiris, tortilla, lluvia; I love the sounds of the double rr and double ll.
The English language has an enormous vocabulary, which is useful for writers, though sometimes frustrating to people who learn it as a second language. “Why does English have so many words for the same thing?” a friend recently complained to me. I don’t remember what she gave as an example but one that comes to my mind right now: Stone. Rock. Pebble. Do we need three different words for essentially the same thing? Perhaps not. But I love the different feel of these three words, the specificity of each. (I realize that pebble is probably the most specific of the three, as the other two can be used in different contexts. Calvin, you are the rock expert. How different are these words really?)
English also has the ability to rapidly pick up new words; it is constantly being reinvented and added to. This is something that Laurie Boris comments on in this blog post. She worries about the ways in which our use of English is becoming increasingly informal through the use of acronyms and texting. However, she also acknowledges that “old expressions have their way of hanging on and easing us into the future. We still say “dial” the phone even though we no longer have dials on our phones. We “cc” colleagues who may never have seen carbon paper. Collections of published music are still called “albums” even though they may only exist as electronic files.” It is curious how some words continue to be used, while others become obsolete. This site here has a bunch of words that (literally) shout out to be rescued. Personally I like sparsile and woundikin.
Words and language are also reflective of culture, as I was reminded while living in Mexico. In Tzotzil there is no word for hello, the greeting upon arriving at a house is mi’ li’ote which literally means “are you there?” The response is li’one: “I am here.” Furthermore there is no goodbye but rather many forms of see you later: ok’ob to, see you tomorrow, likelto, see you in a little while, and tanato, see you this afternoon. In a small village where most people know each other and few ever permanently leave, perhaps there is no need for goodbye. See you later is accurate for most cases. In the case of my final departure, we used the Spanish, adios, goodbye, or literally, “to god.”
Tzotzil is a difficult language to learn full of aspirations, and possibly more closely related to Japanese and other Asian languages than Spanish. (Dan, you might be interested in knowing that there was a Japanese woman who lived in the village who once commented to me that there are some words that are exactly the same in both languages.) It was interesting how learning enough Tzotzil to answer basic questions like Kusi habi? Bu chabat? Bu likemot? (what is your name? where are you going? Where are you from?) helped give me a place in the village. It lent legitimacy to the sentence “I live here in the village” when I could say it in their own language. Nakalon ta jlumaltike. Although my vocabulary was actually quite small and I never got beyond the basics, I really enjoyed learning another language, learning new words. I also made my share of mistakes, like messing up the words v’oh and vo, which sounds almost identical, but mean water and fly respectively. Yes, there is water, no, there are no flies in it.
Which brings me back to the first point of this post: there is a great difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. (And also moca and moco, a mistake I made in Spanish. One means coffee, the other means snot. oh, those lost in translation moments are always hilarious.) Oh, words, the pieces of language that we put together (along with grammar) to communicate and make sense of the world, you fascinate me.
So what about you writers and readers? What are some of your favorite words? For those of you who have traveled overseas, or who speak another language, are there words that you love in those languages? Have you had lost in translation moments?
image source: comic by Drew & Natalie Dee. Check out their website here: http://www.toothpastefordinner.com/