Loving Words I*
Bill Long 8/26/08
Thoughts from Holmes and Trench
[A story from my own past of how I fell in love with words is here.]
After completing my fifth try in the National Spelling Bee (where I have gotten second twice, third once, and fifth once) in mid-June, I thought I would take a hiatus from my exposition of words. For, it seemed to me, my methods of studying words weren't bearing fruit, at least at the spelling level. In addition, I wasn't really 'making any money' on my time-consuming habit of researching and writing on words, and very few of my regular readers seemed as entranced by words in their singular glory as I. So, I resolved to lay aside my interest in words and concentrate on other more profitable endeavors.
At first I decided to make a compromise of sorts with myself to see if I could make a "profit" on words. So, two weeks after the National Bee I drafted two essays for a former student of mine who is now a middle school principal in the East on the topic of words for middle schoolers. Strangely, my relationship with this former student which, up to that time, had gone wonderfully, has disappeared. Don't get me wrong; he loved the ideas in my essays and we like each other. I think, however, when I began to make economics an explicit part of the agenda on words, things tended to fall apart. Something about the "pure call of words" seemed to make things collapse when I "tainted" them with an economic motive.
In a fit of momentary despair, I thought I would give up my studies on words and just turn to other money-making ventures. Sometimes you need to pay the bills. But I found that I was unable to do that. Friends accused me of procrastinating--of avoiding the realities of life that they and everyone else face--by burying myself in an avalanche of words. My relational life fell apart. Bills mounted. Some expressed outright impatience or puzzlement with me, to the effect that I seemed to make such a hard task out of a relatively simple thing of just living one's life in peace. It wasn't the best July for me...
Returning to Words
But then, I knew I had to return to the words. Something in me told me that the study of life through words is not simply a fruitful way of understanding life but perhaps, for me and for many others, the most productive way of understanding the world and keeping mentally sharp. But it is just that there is no support "out there" for the notion. Schools, for all their purported interest in knowledge, are really not very interested in words. Or, to put it differently, words for them are like bricks which they use to build their edifices. Words only have a sort of functional value; they have, in themselves, no inherent value. They help express ideas but it is the ideas, or the publication itself, or the fact of reporting on one's findings or the results of one's study that implicate words. Words are conceived of as all of a piece. They are the simple tools, or materials, used to construct the most basic buildings.
To use an architectural metaphor, words for most people today are simply like the products that went into the construction of late 1960s-early 1970s commerical buildings in America. It was the bland leading the bland. Functionality was the watchword; esthetic pleasure in a building was a thing unknown. If you wanted to have something memorable about a building, well perhaps you can put a sculpted figure of a mythological creature (probably with sculpted towel draped around private parts) with water coming out of various orifices on the otherwise nondescript entry plaza to the building. But buildings were plain and simple, functional, non-arresting.
This is the major way people look at words today. And, I will have to say, I disagree with this approach to words almost completely. Words are the jewels and not simply the case or package in which the jewels are placed; words are the living tissue of thought, and not simply some epidermal excresences that cling to the body of our thoughts. They are the spiritual, intellectual, moral measuring tools for communication. They are, for me, the very stuff of existence.
What To Do?
So, I realized I had to return to words. They simply would not let me go. I began to see dictionaries again not only as delightful friends but, in fact, as only "first drafts" on the words. The best dictionaries are guide posts, or signs along the path directing us further to delights not yet discovered. Dictionaries also make their share of mistakes, one of which I illustrate here. But then, just recently, I found two friends in the quest, men both born in the first decade of the 19th century, one of whom had a distinguished career in medicine and one in divinity, and I was heartened. What unites them in my mind is not simply their love for words but their sense that words, used well and treated well, are among the most valuable things we have. Let me close this essay with a quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and then devote the next two essays to a work of Richard Chevenix Trench.
Holmes on Words
At first it might seem strange that I would be writing here about OW Holmes Sr., since I was a law professor for some time and used the work of his more famous son (1841-1935) in my classes. I have several essays on this site on the son (seven begin here). But as I think of it now, the son's love for language and his ability skillfully to turn a phrase was nurtured in the Boston study of his father, OW Holmes the physician (1809-94). Holmes was a physician but, in reality, he was a wordsmith. Among his earliest literary attemps were two articles entitled "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" published in the New England Magazine in Nov. 1831 and Feb. 1832. A quarter century later, when The Atlantic Monthly was born, Holmes was asked to write something for it, using the old articles as a stimulus.
We catch the flavor of his literary cleverness when he explains his project:
"When "The Atlantic Monthly" was begun, twenty-five years afterwards, and the author [i.e., Holmes] was asked to write for it, the recollection of these crude products of his uncombed literary boyhood suggested the thought that it would be a curious experiment to shake the same bough again, and see if the ripe fruit were better or worse than the early windfalls."
I am not interested here in how he "shook the bough" completely. What did rivet my attention, however, are two of the aphorisms or pieces of advice that survived these twenty-five years. The first is a piece of advice that writers often give to others:
"It is a capital plan to carry a tablet with you, and, when you find yourself felicitous, take notes of your own conversation."
In using the word felicitous here, he seems to be indebted to what the OED now calls the obsolete first definition of the word ("fortunate, prosperous, successful") rather than the one to which we have become accustomed ("admirably suited to the occasion; strikingly apt or appropriate").
But don't miss the point. Carry a little notebook with you, as a primer or stimulus to your own thoughts when you are drawn back to yourself. Yet it was the second remembered thought of Holmes that really caught my attention, however, and I discuss that in the next essay.