Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Lost for words in the universe of expanding English
I’m cultivating the knack of being diametrically out of whack with public or market opinion. It’s a potentially dangerous pursuit, considering my line of work, but I see it as a sort of x-treme sport. Razor’s edge, all that.
Yet this may be mere rationalisation. Some, surely, choose a-popularity as a party skill, like hanging by your toes from skyhooks, but others have it forced upon them. And this, Lord, is me. No sooner do I absolutely like a thing – this roast of coffee, that line of underwear – than it exits the market.
For instance. My local baker made an experimental loaf that was moist yet crusty, the best I’d ever tasted, anywhere: I told him so, and he never made it again. Lancome produced a perfume, a gorgeously limey aroma that suited me perfectly (spiky without, sweet within – not that it’s any of your business) but the minute I was hooked, whammo. This product has been discontinued. How can I not take this personally?
Anyway, it’s no surprise that my approach to the English language stands 180 to the norm. Writers are always gushing over the flex and dexterity of English, the way it hoovers up slang, patois and jargon of all kinds with a voraciousness rivalled only by Catholicism’s sucking-up of billabong religions.
And no doubt that’s true. English is remarkable. The gushers cite really useful blow-ins like wiki and lolcat (has there ever been a craze so dumb?) but there are many newbies to inspire our thanks. Pixel is one. As in “I’m feeling a little bit pixilated today”. Or muffintop, as in jeans. Snowclone, metrosexual and meme.
I also enjoin the judicious misuse of grammar (although to wantonly split the infinitive or end with a preposition are evils I’m still
opposed to). And I delight in assorted vulgarisms.
I won’t tell you which vulgarisms because this august paper, quite rightly, frowns on gratuitous vulgarisms. And me, I like them only when they are gratuitous, sent out like paper boats from a pacific mind. Vulgarisms in service of some more imperial goal – anger, for instance, or emphasis (unless the rhythm demands it) – are strictly pathetic.
I’m often accused of showing off, lexiconically, usually when I think I’m just being precise. “You like to impress,” wrote one reader recently, “with your knowledge of every English word on the planet, so I presume you are familiar with ‘hyperbole’.” Familiar? Darling, hyperbole and I are like this!
But think of the words I spare you. Like pleonastic, cingular, otiose. Clade or thecate. Teflon words, designed to slide across the neurons without leaving so much as a smear. Be grateful.
My point is this. We’re always told how English is an expanding universe and I don’t doubt it for a minute, but perhaps this very expansion is achieved by leaving holes in the middle. Some are where words already existed. A patient delivery service now shatters your traffic-light reverie, where once was ambulance. Personal flotation device where once was lifejacket. And service delivery agreement where once was, simply, contract. This deliberate unpicking and uglifying of the lingo is bad enough.
But there are words that English does not offer and, to my knowledge, never has. Deja vu is fine, being naturalised. But we shouldn’t have to resort to French for l’esprit d’escalier – the too-late dawning of what you wish you’d said (or written) – or to German for gemutlichkeit, the warm congeniality of the gluhwein hut in a frosted street. Or Japanese, for wabi sabi’s admirable decrepitude.
Some of the words I crave are architectural in origin. Like parti, defined as the “basic idea or concept of an architectural scheme” but which must also be spatially diagrammable (there’s another). The parti of heliocentric universe, for example, is a ball ringed by, well, cingula. The parti of the suburb is a repetitive pattern of square solids within spaces arranged along a conduit.
There should also be a noun from the verb to ignore (no, ignorance won’t do) and something graceful meaning between-ness. And something for the way capitalism
digests its critics.
I’d like a word for “through-ness”, too – the quality of both allowing and needing the tidal through-flow of stuff shared by skin, faces, bodies, gills and buildings but not really covered by “thoroughfare”, “passage” or “permeability”. Also nice-to-be-nearness (of a surface or building), hierarchy of scale (of a composition) and the notion of variety-within-unity that underpins so many aesthetic successes, from shingled roofs to snowflakes and from military tattoos to urban forests.
There should be a word for beauty that doesn’t sound old-fashioned; another for the kind of gravitas a Doric column has in spades but modernism never could replicate, and one for that noble beauty the ancients called arete, embracing strength, cultivation, fitness for purpose and moral virtue as well as good looks.
And, Lord, while you’re at it, I could use something to cover the sum total of human history and geography other than here-and-now. That’d be really handy, although maybe hubris is suggesting itself already?