I have always had a fascination – nearing on obsession – with words. Not just the technicalities of their usage (although being a pedantic English graduate, unfortunately alarm bells do tend to ring in my head when I hear a misused term or faintly awkward construction; it’s a habit I’m trying hard to break), but how they come to exist and become popular, the changes in their meaning, how they fit and flow with others to produce sentences that burst with all kinds of sensations. We’re all aware of that famous idiom ‘A picture paints a thousand words’, an idea I often find myself struggling with just because I somehow construe it as a slight on the lexical; yes, pictures are beautiful, often awe-inspiring, even preferable when what you’re aiming for is simplicity. But let’s not shy away from using at least quite a few, if not all of these thousand words, relish in the feel of them upon our lips, marvel at the wondrous ways they can describe the slightest and strangest of actions. Above all, the way they constantly bestow us with knowledge, amusement, emotion and endless ways of expression. Because – to borrow another, more colloquial phrase – if you don’t use it, you lose it. And to consider the fact that any number of words will fall by the wayside, becoming neglected and, harshest of all fates, becoming unspoken, is nothing short of a tragedy.
The threat of linguistic loss loomed large for me personally just the other day, when alongside reading about the latest influx of words and phrases to be included in the newest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary I also discovered a website dedicated to a plethora of words that are at serious risk of extinction from the English language. Save The Words is a project set up by the editors of Oxford University Press which aims to prevent underused words from dying out altogether. All well and good, but how are they proposing to refresh the lifespan of such lexical items? It’s quite straightforward; they are up for adoption. Yes, really. On entering the site, you’re confronted with a screen full of weird and completely wonderful words; it’s heaven for a linguistic lover such as myself. You can then click on whatever word takes your fancy and sign up to adopt it, making the pledge to use your lexical bundle of joy in conversation and correspondence, as frequently as possible to the very best of your ability. It’s a commendable concept – not only is it fun to discover a range of new-but-really-quite-old words (it is to me, anyway) but it’s also heartening to know that others care so much about language to ensure it doesn’t go to waste. One of the great things about the English language is its diversity and changing nature, but another factor which is perhaps even more important is its overwhelming variety and richness.
So this week’s featured poem is an ode to the tools of every poet, author…indeed every human being. Spoken or written, classical or contemporary, or even downright obscure – each word is a veritable delight to the ear and eye. They often speak louder for themselves than we can ever do at trying to describe them, so I shall let them – and Elinor Wylie – do the talking here.
Poets make pets of pretty, docile words:
I love smooth words, like gold-enamelled fish
Which circle slowly with a silken swish,
And tender ones, like downy-feathered birds:
Words shy and dappled, deep-eyed deer in herds,
Come to my hand, and playful if I wish,
Or purring softly at a silver dish,
Blue Persian kittens fed on cream and curds.
I love bright words, words up and singing early;
Words that are luminous in the dark, and sing;
Warm lazy words, white cattle under trees;
I love words opalescent, cool, and pearly,
Like midsummer moths, and honied words like bees,
Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.
Elinor Wylie (1885-1929)