Saturday, 5 January 2008

And so to begin.

I love words, to the point where I willingly label myself a logophile. My logophilia began early, as reading unlocked worlds and experiences far from my suburban Irish childhood. And the essential privacy of reading, the silent communion between reader and writer, calms me in a way few things do.

It’s always been interesting to see how the different people in my life view my reading. I’ve had boyfriends who’ve been jealous of something that absorbed my time and attention, so it’s no surprise that the man I’ve chosen to spend my life with is also a reader, albeit to a lesser extent than me. I’ve had family and friends wonder how I can stay indoors on a hot day, or stay up for hours, when I’m reading something I literally cannot put down.

The physicality and sensuality of books add to my intense enjoyment - the cover artwork, the texture of the paper, the acknowledgments and dedications and smell of glue. But my love of words is more than bibliophilia. I read the words on shampoo bottles in the shower or on adverts on the tube when it’s too packed to read my book and wonder about who chose those words and why. I eavesdrop on strangers as I move through my life and wonder what the words they use actually mean to them. I love to find old postcards in antique markets, the thrill of imaging the stories behind the faded lines written by strangers to strangers. I love the history of words, and how word usage varies from region to region. Words are my entry into other stories, other worlds, other times, and are as close as I’ll come to another’s mind.

When I was 13 or so, one of my favourite English teachers used to set a weekly list of 10 words to memorise. The words had a theme, perhaps collective nouns or words sharing the same root, and I just adored them. I can still recite some of the lists, with definitions, and I remember how exciting it was to feel my vocabulary expand. And the praise she used to give for using the new words in our essays and book reports. That was a stage in my life when I still avidly looked up words I didn’t know when I came across them in my reading. I stopped doing that at some point during university, when it just became too much hassle, despite studying English and History. Perhaps it was the embarrassment of not knowing words that I felt I should have known, that were obviously well known enough for an author to use them. Or perhaps it was just laziness of my part.

But a couple of weeks ago I read a wonderful piece in the Guardian’s Review section by James Meek. He decided to look up every word he didn’t understand, and produced a delightful essay about language and lexicography and what it tells us about our world. I didn’t know most of the words he mentioned and it set me thinking about how I nearly always skip over words I don’t understand. This triggered memories of when I used to look them up, about how my first major purchase at university was a set of Oxford dictionaries being given away as an introductory offer by a book club. The same set of dictionaries I’ve used and taken care of in the decade since then, carefully packing and unpacking them as I moved from flat to flat. So I decided to honour my love of words by making a resolution to look up words I don’t know, and note where and when I found them. This will hopefully reinvigorate my reading as well, as it’s a chance to recapture the excitement of learning. I’m wondering what patterns I’ll uncover and what effect it’ll have on my own speech.

The very first word I came across after making this resolution was adumbrate, which was used in an email forwarded to me by a colleague. My OED defines this verb as follows:

-report or represent in outline;

-indicate faintly;

-foreshadow or prefigure a future event;


It originated in the late 16th century, from Latin adumbratus, ‘shaded’, from the verb adumbrare, from ad ‘to’ (as an intensifier) and umbrare ‘cast a shadow’ (from umbra ‘shade’).

And of course, now that I know what it means, and its origin, I clearly see the echo of umbra and it seems such a much more useful and multi faceted word than ‘summary’. I’m already glad I’ve made this promise to myself.


Juliet said...

Hi, and welcome to blogland - a great first post on what promises to be a very interesting blog. I look forward to visiting and reading more. Good luck and happy blogging!

Logophile said...

Thanks Juliet! This is all very new for me, but I'm already enjoying getting to know the great blogs out there. It's so inspiring at what can be a bit of a glum time of year...

verbivore said...

Pleased to meet another logophile and I look forward to reading your blog! I love the idea of a committment to looking up words that I don't know - I am often the same and just skip them or get a rough estimate from context. You've inspired me to be better about that!

Anonymous said...

So now I've done a little digging, and I see that you made the blogging plunge at the same time, then read GTiotM at the same time, and you're doing an African reading challenge--you might look at my Africa? posts. Weird, but wonderful. Good luck and good reading to us both.