Monday, January 10, 2011

I Have Words!

James A. H. Murray, long-time editor of the OED, working in his Scriptorium.

Two of my favorite books are The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything, both by Simon Winchester, and both related to the creation of the largest and most comprehensive dictionary in the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, or the OED, for short. I’m not going to review the books here, other than to say I was fascinated with the decades-long work of collecting words for that magisterial dictionary.

When I was in high school, I started collecting word lists. Whenever I read, I would write down unfamiliar words, words that I simply wanted to be more familiar with, or common words I wanted to appreciate more. I’ve continued this practice to this very day and have no intention of ceasing the practice. Words are beautiful, they have power, they amaze me. The other morning, shortly after I woke up, I reached for the notebook I keep by the bed and with my favorite mechanical pencil began free-writing…about words. And this is how it came out:

I have words! Oh yes, I have words. Folders stuffed with sheets of loose-leaf filled with words collected from books and magazines and anywhere I found them. There are strange and exotic words. There are ordinary, commonplace words that would scarcely make a jaded reader bat an eyelid, but still they are good words, honest words – and without them, the more sparkling, dazzling, exorbitant words would not find a context within which to sit. One thing is for sure – they are all beautiful words, glorious and necessary…as necessary as air or water; I can’t do without them.

I have notebooks full of words, and lists of “vocabulary” words on my computer. And I keep adding more words all the time. Some of the words I add, I don’t know, or I want to know better. Others I know quite well. They are simple, common, everyday words – but I don’t want to fall into the trap of taking them for granted. I used to lie on the ground for an hour or more at a time studying the shapes and structures of blades of grass, watching the ants stroll by, or imagining what a microscopic view of the physical structure of a grain of red clay might look like. I am just as fascinated with words.

Words give me joy. They fill me and fulfill me – they nourish me. Sometimes they hurt me, scold me, or embarrass me (I even have vulgar words in my list… “those” words, the ones we used to look up with relish in the dictionary in junior high). They have all earned the right to be on my lists, even archaic words that long ago fell from common use, because someone at some time has used them. They have expressed, admonished, encouraged, enlightened, frightened, challenged, disgusted, chastened, delighted – in all cases they have elevated the blandness of mere survival to the heights of meaning. I have words. And before the day is over, I will have a few more.

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