Thursday, 3 September 2009
Word of the day; or, in which I talk a lot of nonsense
Posted by Tania Kindersley.
My word of the day is actually Oof, because this is the sound I am making every five minutes. I have a low level virus. Nothing as proper as swine flu, just the bog standard everything hurts bug. Both my nieces have had it; it is going round the compound. It consists of: pain all up and down the back, as if one has been kicked by a cross Shetland pony; eyes like boiled sweets; general sense of anomie; glands up like steel hawsers in the neck. I have a little grumble about it on Twitter, and the entire enchanting community rises up like one big mamma and sends me every possible remedy, from whisky to golden seal. I take seriously the suggestion from my friend Miss Whistle, who is herself surviving smoke inhalation from the California wildfires, to add some cayenne pepper to my ginger tea. 'If you can stand it,' she says, unwisely, not knowing that even when filthy ill my competitive spirit will not resist a challenge. So my second word of the day is Aaaahhhh, as I drink the spiciest tea I can bear. I cannot tell whether it is doing me any good, but it is so hot that it diverts the pain from my back to my tongue, giving an impression of relief.
Anyway, none of that is the point. I think there is a point, but my brain in fuzzy. Oh yes: I was wandering listessly around the interweb, because I can't concentrate enough to read a proper book, and my muscles ache too much to allow me to doze, and I must do something to distract myself, and I happened upon an article by the interesting academic Sarah Churchwell about how her students were having trouble with the English language. This kind of thing always makes me sad, and I try to pretend very hard that it is not true. It started me thinking about grammar and language and rules and what matters and what doesn't. Her initial complaint was that none of her students could tell her what a complete sentence was. The Greeks or Americans would be able to tell her in a heartbeat, apparently, but the clueless Britons just mutter 'subject, verb, object'. Oh dear, I thought, that is exactly what I would mutter, and I am a writer. I get all lyrical about the semi-colon. I went to a highly-regarded university in the days when you had to sit a separate exam to get in. Could it be true that all these years I have got it wrong? Yes, says Professor Churchwell, and she has the chops to tell me right from wrong: she teaches at East Anglia, she has been on Newsnight with Martin Amis, she is a serious academic. She says that a correct sentence is: subject, predicate, complete thought. Bugger. I am so fucked.
What is worrying about this is that not only have I been wrong about sentences for the last twenty-five years, but that I may also have been wrong in my central, endlessly repeated idea that you must know the rules of grammar in order to break them. When I thought of writing good English I thought of Picasso, and his blue period. I would wager that not that many people know a huge amount about the blue period, Pablo is so famous for his modernist, deconstructed, back to front paintings. When we think of Picasso we think of Guernica, or those great portraits of Dora Maar or the demoiselles of Avignon. (Memo to self: please try and retrain brain not to use editorial we. Memo back to self: much too ill to think of that now, go away.) The correct, almost classical blue period paintings do not shout Picasso. But my theory was: he had to do those to understand everything he could about perspective and how to use light and the way that oil lies on a canvas, and then, once he knew the serious rules about everything, he could bust out and go wild and put people's noses behind their knees if he wanted to. So my theory went that since I knew everything about grammar, I too could go crazy and create knees with noses behind them. I liked to think of writing like jazz: I wanted to improvise and riff about a bit and, you know, play with the form. (My friend the Man of Letters says a day is not a day unless you have played with the form.) I am not as playful as I would like to be, especially not in non-fiction, not as antic as the late great Stan Gebler Davies or the very much with us Caitlin Moran or the enduring Christopher Hitchens. But the idea was there. And now I discover I was working on a false premise because all the time I did not know what a bloody sentence was.
This, interestingly (or not) is still not the point. That was just a sideshow I was allowing myself because my head hurts. The point was, I got to the end of Professor Churchwell's interesting article and there was the word 'apraxia'. Look it up, she says, I had to. No, no, I thought, not me. I may not know grammar from a hole in the ground, but I know words. Words are my bread and butter, my daily oxygen, my swallows flying south for the winter. Apraxia clearly means something to do with suffocation. I know that. In the end, sheepishly, I looked it up. It means the inability to execute voluntary movement, due to some failure in the cortex. Double bugger and arse.
So I thought: all right, let's get a word of the day thing going on the blog, because even I can't know all the words, in their right order. Probably Martin Amis does not know all the words. Although Will Self clearly does. I'll find a nice little word of the day site and paste it in or something, I thought. An occasional series, I thought, I like those. And I went to the Dictionary.com word of the day, which was just what I was looking for, and it said: Carom. Carom? I said. Come on. There is no way that is a word. Someone is having a laugh. They mean careen, surely. It's not even one of those technical terms with very limited use referring only to a particular moment in the moon's waxing or waning. It means, apparently: a glancing off, or, to strike and rebound. People do it in snooker all the time. I used to play snooker with handsome boys in louche pool halls at the wrong end of Westbourne Grove in the days when Westbourne Grove had a wrong end, and not one of them ever used the word carom. They did not say: 'Good lord, that ball is caroming about today.' I shall not tell you what they did say, for legal reasons. So now I don't know what to think. I suppose that Carom must be my word for the day, but I think that chagrin might be more appropriate. I think that snookered might fit the bill better. I think that I might have been better off if I had just stuck with oof and been done with it.