The start of a journey.
As a dad, one of my all-time favorite things in the world is the old “fee fi fo fum” routine, which sends the heebie-jeebies up my kids’ spines and sets them squealing and scurrying across the room. Coming in close second are the funny or unexpected things my kids say.
My four-year-old, wont to describe things in such words as gem-ish and who isn’t convinced there’s a difference between penguins and pangolins, recently whipped out the word cornucopia. A couple weeks ago, in asking for some tea in the “Caribou cup” (let’s hear it from my Caribou Coffee fans) he politely requested with a searching stutter the “caboose mug.” Even more common than these endearing foibles (and just as fun) is his excited use of go’ed to tell a tale of some exciting happening he attended. Usually I don’t correct his sweet mispronunciations because it just feels wrong to spoil such wonderful naivety. In the last case, it’s not just a feeling. Went, after all, isn’t the past tense of go.
Sure, went has thoroughly taken root in this particular place — donned this grammatical role — but it’s an invasive species so to speak, having slithered and, well, went its way over from its native wend. Digging a little deeper, the Scots gaed comes up as the closest modern thing we have to the the “indigenous” past tense of go.1 My son, relying on all the linguistic instincts he’s been able to scavenge in four years, and in the face of all the times he’s actually heard the rest of the family say went, was able to more or less appropriately inflect the word go to tell us something cool about his day.
I, for one, think that’s pretty neat.
Something new from Awaking Dragons
In mid-most of the word-wood is a path
That leads back to the springs of truth in speech.
— Malcom Guite, from “De Magistro”2
I think I’ve always been a bit of a word nut, to some extent. I don’t pretend to have some kind of mind-shattering vocabulary (that facade would soon fail), but I like taking the mile plunge with the inch I have and pulling on dangling threads like a child with a sweater. I’ve always liked stumbling on a new word, and have learned to love their unraveling as well.
As a poet, finding the right word to convey a meaning can pull a flailing piece off its face, make a decent piece good, and might even bring a good piece into the realm of the “not too shabby.” At the very least (and more importantly) it can set things back on track, back to saying something the heart can hear. The right word can soothe an ache, plant seeds in the heart. Heal.
As a person, this can be the difference between fostering connection or misunderstanding, clinging to reality or apprehending Reality, praising knowledge or courting wisdom. You might think I exaggerate, but consider the serpent’s words to Eve, and the twisted meanings that have since shaped our world.
We create worlds with our words, too.
There’s a mystery at play when we speak, a process inside us that — over in a flash — doesn’t tend to strike us for the wonder it is. An experience, a feeling, a meaning translated by the imagination into sound or symbol, this somehow intelligible to another who attempts (and that’s key) to un-translate back into the realm of ideas and meaning: that is a word. And there are webs and webs and oceans more of these words that have crashed over one another, usurped and killed and carried and loved one another over the centuries to make up what we’d now like to think is our static language and superior, modern ideas. I wish I’d have come across the term “chronological snobbery” sooner than I did.3
I’d have previously told you words have one meaning, and only one. What are dictionaries for, after all? And laws? Textbooks? I think I was wrong. I may have been right to a certain degree, but I’ve come to think I was still off the mark.
I’m not an expert in this field, not a linguist. I have no credentials to share with you. But I have questions, curiosities, and the gumption to pursue them. I believe that when questions are asked, answers turn up, if slowly.
By heading Into the Word Wood, a child and focused branch (though still very much a part) of Awaking Dragons, I hope to spend some time intermittently meandering, wending along the “path / That leads back to the springs of truth in speech,” exploring words and their depths with what tools I have and connections I can make.
I hope you’ll come along with me. Let’s see where this path goes.
What are some of your favorite words, and why? How about your least favorite?
Douglas Harper, "go (v.)," Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 12/26/2023, https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=go.
Malcolm Guite, "De Magistro," in The Singing Bowl: Collected Poems by Malcolm Guite (London, UK: Canterbury Press, 2013), 117-118.
C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Janovich, Publishers, 1984), 207-208.