Friday, December 11, 2015

Following Words: A Small Voyage

Mid-December and the ground is still bare. On this dark morning, the fog is so thick that I can barely glimpse the edge of the clearing. The sky sags onto the roofs. The tops of trees are lost in cloud.

I open Bart Giamatti's book Take Time for Paradise, and he tells me:
Athletes and actors--let actors stand for the set of performing artists--share much. They share the need to make gesture as fluid and economical as possible, to make out of a welter of choices the single, precisely right one. . . . Both athlete and actor, out of that congeries of emotion, choice, strategy, knowledge of the terrain, mood of spectators, condition of others in the ensemble, secret awareness of injury or weakness, and as nearly an absolute concentration as possible so that all externalities are integrated, all distraction absorbed to the self, must be able to change the self so successfully that it changes.
I open The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to look up congeries and am immediately distracted by
constupate v.t. M16-L17 [L constuprat- pa. ppl. stem of constupare, f. as CON- + stupare ravish, f. stuprum defilement: see -ATE.] Ravish, violate.
Startled, I attempt to avoid the further distractions of Congreve ("a military rocket of the kind invented by Congreve") and conger ("an association of booksellers who sold or printed books for their common advantage"), and eventually bring my mind back to
congeries n. Pl. same. M16. [L. congeries heap, pile, f. congere: see CONGEST v.] A collection of disparate or unsorted items; a rag-bag.
which allows me to verify that Giamatti was correct to use congeries with a singular verb even though it sounds wrong in the sentence. It also leads me to consider the implications of changing the sentence to "a rag-bag of emotion, choice, strategy, knowledge of the terrain . . . ," which sounds far more like something I would write if I were writing a sentence about athletes and actors.

And this leads me to ponder the tiny differences in personality that word choice can reveal. Giamatti is a congeries sort of man, whereas I am a rag-bag sort of woman. (Notice, too, that I retain the English preference for overdoing hyphens rather than the American preference for tossing them into the winds. Who would want rag bag when she could have rag-bag?)


If anything the fog outside the window is even thicker than it was when I wrote the first paragraph. Under the lifting darkness, it has taken on a vague glimmer, like a failing flashlight in a tent. 

I reread the Giamatti extract and think about athletes and actors. I have no experiential background in either athletics or acting, but I am inclined to believe that his observation makes sense for musicians. Still, I might believe more whole-heartedly if he'd used the word rag-bag. And now I am wondering if being so distracted by words does more harm than good. Perhaps it makes me dumber than other people. I should stop thinking about being dumber than other people.


Outside, a small bird repeats itself: ank ank ank. A nuthatch. When my oldest son was learning to talk, he used to call it a birdhatch. Ank ank ank. Birdfinch and birdhatch. Those were the two birds he knew.

I wonder if conger the selfish bookseller has anything to do with conger eels? I wonder if the playwright Congreve invented the military rocket; maybe he was one of those Philip Sidney kind of soldier-writers. I bet not, though. I bet it was his more successful brother or perhaps a grandson who was rebelling against the annoyances of living in an arty family. Frankly, I don't want to think any more about constupate. It's hard to find something good to say about a word that makes rape sound like constipation.

"They share the need . . .  to make out of a welter of choices the single, precisely right one." Yes, but how can we know it's the "single, precisely right one"? I never do.

1 comment:

Carlene said...

I do much the same thing, quite often. I like the feeling of being on a treasure hunt. And now, I think I see the connection among schtup, tupped, and constupate.