Monday, June 3, 2013

On Discovering Words

When I was in graduate school, my roommate’s father came to visit.  We were in the middle of moving out of a house that we had been renting.  As we cleaned it up, packing boxes and mopping the floors, he sat on a bar stool and read entries from a dictionary out loud.  At the time, I found the behavior inexplicable.  Just another part of being a goofy old guy  And yet he was clearly fascinated by what he was finding and that made us interested as well.

As so often happens in my life, now I understand.  At some point, I began using the dictionary as more than a spell-checker, and I found it contained amazing information.  Meanings. Etymologies.  Odd juxtapositions.  And, as the poet said, “way leads on to way.”  One word leads to another.  Now, I sometimes find myself doing the same thing my friend’s father did, occasionally looking up a word and then looking up another word and then randomly browsing the dictionary and even reading it out loud to others (usually my poor captive students).  There is a pleasure in learning what words mean, and used to mean, and sharing the information.  A dictionary is like a Field Guide to Language.

Someone once told me that he couldn’t write poetry because he didn’t have a big enough vocabulary.  He didn’t have the words.  I explained that I didn’t have the words either, but the poems teach them to me.  I learn them as I need them.

Writing isn’t always an expression of language, sometimes it’s an exploration of language.  You discover the words as you go.

1 comment:

  1. As a kid, I developed a fascination for words. My parents, English teachers, nurtured this by explaining what certain words meant when I asked. Because I couldn't see well enough to read the print dictionary, Dad often looked up words and read their definitions to me.

    When I was in the seventh grade, I got my very own Braille dictionary, thirty-six volumes that took up two shelves in our basement. I spent hours looking up words, words, and more words.

    As I grew older, I lost interest in the dictionary, only using it when necessary, but I never lost inteest in words. I guess that's why I'm a writer.e