The Love of Language Is a Lifelong (And Only Slightly Stigmatizing) Affair

Here’s a pretty good example of how my brain works.

Actually, let me pause for a moment and provide a second good example of how my brain works.  I opened up a document to start typing up this post.  I had an idea of what I was going to say and my brain was in “on a roll” mode.  That is to say that my brain had already reached the delicate point of balance at which I can just type what I’m thinking and have it make sense.  That usually takes me a while.

However, I had typed exactly one letter when I realized the problem.  The document’s font was “Times New Roman.”  I hate Times New Roman.  I might have some sort of irrational grudge against serifs.  I’m not sure.  Either way it threw off my whole groove.  I finished my sentence–yonder first sentence–changed the font, and embarked upon this little self-interruption.

I feel better about the font now.  You might wonder why I don’t change the default settings of my productivity software.  I will wonder right along with you.  I suspect that a large part of it has to do with the overall complexity involved just in finding the setting to change the default font.  My productivity software is very user friendly, as long as users want to do very specific things in very specific ways.   It has no patience for my quirks.

Luckily the feeling isn’t mutual, because I can’t afford new productivity software.

Either way, back to my first good example of how my brain works:

I was standing in a gas station earlier today, and the radio there was playing Berlin’s (the band’s) song, “Take my breath away.”  I thought to myself how much more interesting it would be to say, “Take my wind away,” or perhaps, “Take my spirit away.”

Those options occurred to me because the words for “breath” in Ancient Greek and Biblical Hebrew happen in both cases also to be the word for “wind” and “spirit,” and if we want to be pesky about it, “spirit” is just the Latin word that means all the same things.  Also we could use all three and mean “Ghost,” which is a fun alternative.

In any event I always like it when words can mean different things.  I find the entire notion of lexical senses intoxicating. I’ll pause for you to say that I’m the only one.  (Also this is a good time for people to point out the rather circuitous use I’m making of illegitimate totality transfer.)

It’s interesting to me the way languages work.  Languages will have one word that has a multitude of divers uses, but then about some other idea they will have incredibly specific and nuanced terms almost as if to avoid letting any one word mean too much.  For example, both Hebrew and Greek have a truly horrifying repertoire of words that mean “kill.”  I’m told, although I’ve never encountered it–the reasons will hopefully be obvious by the end of the sentence–that the ancient Greeks had a specific verb for killing someone by removing his or her eyes with a spoon.

English is not specifically better about this, in case you happen to think this phenomenon is exclusive to ancient languages.  We may have divided certain ancient words into multiple words for the multiple original uses, but we still have words like “run.”  My car might run.  A program might run.  I might run.  I might run for office.  My nose might run.  I might run up a tab.  I might have a run in my stockings.   My eyeliner might run.

(Admittedly the last few might prompt non-lexical questions.)

“Charge” is another good example.  I might charge something to my account.  I might charge a barricade.  I might charge my phone.  The police might charge me with a crime.  A judge might subsequently charge me with better behavior.  An explosives expert might plant a charge.  I might take charge of a situation.  I might get a charge out of a situation.

We even have words like “peruse,” which can mean contradictory things–to read slowly and with attention, to read quickly without attention–and words like “cleave,” which is it’s own opposite, meaning both to separate and to bring together.

This is what I thought about while standing in a gas station listening to a song from a movie about jet fighters.



Today I invented a word.  Unfortunately I can only barely remember what I invented it to do.

The word is “mothabout,” pronounced like “moth”, with the soft “th” like in “math” instead of the rougher “th” in “lathe,” combined with “about.”  I imagine the stress would fall on the first syllable, with a secondary stress on the last syllable, if necessary.  I would try to type that out phonetically the way it would appear in the dictionary, but I can’t remember right now how to make all of the fancy symbols.

Either way, I invented it in that twilight between waking and sleeping, and it seemed like a perfectly good idea.  Unfortunately I was then dragged back from sleeping, and my inspiration faded very quickly.  Although I suppose it’s fortunate that I was dragged back, or I wouldn’t remember the word at all.  Also many other things.

It was a hectic morning at my house.  The usual procedure is that I stay up later than my wife does, both for personal reasons–I like nighttime and have trouble falling asleep–and practical ones–taking care of the kids during the first part of the night is my job–but then she lets me sleep a bit later than she does.  Today, rather before even she wanted to wake up, two things happened.

First, our infant son woke up hungry.  He takes hunger seriously at the best of times.  We’ve been trying to get him to sleep longer at night (so that we can sleep longer at night), so he especially takes hunger seriously when he wakes up in the morning.  His poor little tummy reminds him that it has been too long without food, and then he dutifully passes that message onto us.  He has all the patience and understanding for delays that you would imagine in a baby.

At very nearly the same moment, my daughter was explosively ill.  I won’t go into detail, so as not to involve you in gross things which even we would have preferred to miss in spite of the fact that she’s our daughter and we like being involved in her life, but she started crying and came stumbling into our room for help.

Naturally, my wife’s and my morning changed trajectory immediately.  She took care of our son; I took care of our daughter.  We got them both soothed and settled.  (And clean, another important consideration.)  The whole business took about an hour and a half, once we factored in cleaning up our daughter’s room.

By that point I was pretty groggy.  When my son went down for his first nap of the day, I asked my wife if I might take a small nap as well.  (At that point I had only slept perhaps four hours.  Many other people I know can subsist on so little, but if I try to do it, I fall asleep halfway through the word “subsist.”)  She kindly consented to continuing the caretaking a cappella.  (Apparently I’m a musical instrument.  Mostly I wanted to continue the alliteration.  I suppose I could have used “unaccompanied,” but “a cappella” came to mind first.)

Either way, I stumbled back to bed and began the long process of falling back to sleep.  Somewhere in there I was thinking over one difficulty or another, and thinking about ways to address it, and ways other people have addressed it.  All of those methods, both the ones to which I gravitated and the ones which others had already employed, seemed rather non-committal, circuitous, wishy-washy, and other such terms as might describe dancing around something rather than being direct.

In my sleepy state though, I described it as “trying to mothabout the subject.”

You’ll have to take my word for it that I described it as “trying to mothabout the subject” rather than “trying to moth about the subject.”  I think in text, so I know there was no space.

It seemed like such a beautiful word.  (And I understand that other words exist for this same basic idea–I have a thesaurus too–but I like my new word.)

Since then I have realized that it is rather difficult to decline.  I mothabout; he mothabouts?  I mothabout, and so I have mothabouted?  This would of course all be easier if there had been a space–“he moths about, I have mothed about”–but there wasn’t.  Perhaps I’m the only person who finds it jarring to decline something which smacks of being a preposition.

I think the subjunctive should be “mythabout.”  (e.g. “If I be hesitant, and if I mythabout, please forgive me.”)

Now I’m out of time.  I encourage you to use this word though.  It will make you seem erudite and hip, and not at all strange.  Again, you might need to trust me about that, especially when the evidence begins to mount for quite the opposite.  Just keep using it.  The world will eventually be on our side.

Actual Conversations IV

I enjoy words, perhaps more than is usual or healthy.  I like hearing them; I like knowing them; I like using them.  (That last should probably be obvious by now, or I’m not doing it correctly.)

Naturally, given that I’m the one involved, my enjoyment promotes an embarrassing number of odd activities.  For example, if I’m watching a video and can’t understand a Continue reading

Sunday, 7 October 2012

I’m not the biggest fan of Martin Luther.  (I’ll spare you my rant for now.)   As an unsurprising extension, I’m also not particularly a fan of the movie Luther which was made about his life.  However, one scene in it affects me powerfully.

A teenage boy commits suicide.  A dispute arises about where and how he should be buried.  Luther’s heart focuses on the boy, on his sufferings and the terrible despair which had made death seem like the only possible recourse.  Caught up in a spirit of mercy, he Continue reading