I have always been a bit of a word maniac, an admirer of humans’ ability to string together words, generating sentences, the most ingenious tales and lines of verse so beautiful that you have to read it over and over again to etch it on your memory. There are quite a few of us out there, that I know, who are seduced by words and called closer by them, lured into their delightful trap, intrigued by their endless horizon of possibilities.
And even if people are not all that fascinated by words, we are all well aware of how languages connect people. It’s the common ground on which we all tread: the roots from which our worlds grew.
It started early: my love affair with words. As a child I dreamed of being locked up all night inside the local library that I still go to visit when I return to the town I grew up in. Back then it was a treasure trove of tales and adventures, now it looks small and sparse (how one’s journeys around the world change one’s perspective) but still filled with enough good books (many of these Afrikaans novels having been banned in the 1960’s and 70’s) to while away the time in a sleepy South African Eastern Cape town. Like the legendary Arabic queen, Scheherazade, I would have loved to spend my nights in the company of stories. But then it was different: in an innocent mind a night stretches into an eternity of witching hours and seemingly endless, unfilled silences before sunrise.
As life moves on though one quickly learns that a night is not quite long enough, that sleep is much needed and that the world does not allow for idle, non-commercial musings. Words are primarily used to get on with the dealings of day-to-day life, the practicality of it never under-estimated. But indulging in it: now that is something you need to make time for in your spare time, if any are left to spare, or secretly squeeze your real interests in between working hours. So this preoccupation with words throughout the journey of day-to-day life, had to be adapted to wanderings through book shops and learning to appreciate the small moments of delighting in words: laughing at the rare clever chat-up line; savouring the remnants of clever dialogue in the few dark moments between the end of a great movie and the frantic scurry of exiting movie-goers; indulging in witty text messages from other wordy friends; scribbling down a few lines between tube stops; reading a short story before drifting off to sleep; frantically trying to make time for a weekly language class; mourning the hours spent making a living while the amount of books arriving on bookshelves multiply (drifting further and further out of reach) as the hours in one’s day become shorter.
And then there are bookshops, old-fashioned ones, occupied by dark shelves holding up volumes of stories and words that seem to secretly guard the books that tantalise onlookers with their titles proudly printed on their upright spines. It is on one of these stolen journeys through a second-hand bookshop that I found ‘The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words’, first published as ‘The Insomniac’s Dictionary’ in 1986: a compendium of weird and wonderful words and other phobias. One of my most precious finds yet. Up there with wonderful people who have their own close attachments and amorous entanglements with words and captivating experiences, like a friend who used to sleep with the dictionary under her pillow like a good-luck charm; a university lecturer who claimed (and rightly so) that sometimes there is nothing sexier than jumping in bed with a good book and the memory of the library in the San Francisco Monastery in Lima, Peru – its spiral staircases suspended between the 25,000 volumes contained therein, secretly breathing life into the 25 000 bodies laid to rest, their bones scattered in the catacombs underneath.
And so the book has started travelling with me: my wordy companion never at a loss for something to say, a word at the ready for almost any occasion, symptom or area of life.
It just so happened that not too long ago I found myself another companion. This time it happened to be a man, a bit of an insomniac funnily enough, who uses the most wonderful words and expressions, some of them colloquial, some a bit outdated, many of them quite bookish, but always interesting and surprising. He manages to casually throw words and phrases like ‘mucker’, ‘discombobulated’, ‘cessation’, ‘incongruent’, ‘erudite’ and ‘cock a snook’ into a conversation. He tempted me with his words, enticed me with the other-worldliness that pervaded his text messages and reeled me in. And so having a way with words, he has a way with me.
If the ‘The Insomniac’s Dictionary’ got hold of him, he would most probably be described as, amongst other things, someone who loves ‘knissomancy’ (incense burning) and ‘rusticating’ (going to the country), has an aversion to ‘tomecide’ (to destroy books) but unfortunately suffers from ‘hyposomnia’ (lack of sleep) and ‘pernoctation’ (insomnia).
Lucky for me, even this insomniac streak work in my favour at times. Some mornings I wake up to find a few romantic lines he’d penned down for me during the long waking hours of a sleepless night. He’ll think of unusual places to visit while awake during quiet early morning darkness, like poetry libraries and secluded beaches in Cornwall.
I even have a strong suspicion that he has an understanding of how I am being held hostage between two languages, both which I hold almost equally dear. When we travelled through South Africa a year ago, my companion commented on how easy it was for bilingual people to switch between languages, how effortless I seemed to get along with other strangers as we traversed the country. It is after all my home country but I was wondering if it could have something to do with the mother tongue that connects us so easily with others who speak it too. An unsaid understanding that goes without saying, without needing to be mentioned, between people raised within the framework of the same sound patterns. Language can sometimes be that common heritage which makes strangers feel as if they’ve known each other for a long time.
A friend sent me a link the other day, listing interesting bookshops around the world:
This made me contemplate that maybe one day I’ll properly preoccupy myself with my first love and go on a long journey, dipping into every one of these wordy places, allowing myself to be seduced over and over again.
But in the meantime I thank my lucky stars that, surrounded by modern day chaos where speed is of the essence, I can still withdraw to that magical place where words save us from losing our heads, just like Scheherazade.
WORDS and DEFINITIONS taken from:
Hellweg, P. 1993. The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words. Wordsworth Editions Ltd.