I really can’t help it, this thing I have about words. This fascination with their power, this wonder at their flexibility, this compulsion to string them together into necklaces of sound and rhythm that sway around my neck as I walk. The way they feel spilling out of my mouth, puffs and bursts of air shaped by throat and teeth and tongue. The way they look on a page, black lines and squiggles that stand at attention, but only barely so. There is nothing quite so magical as the read, the written, the spoken word.
I am not, of course, alone in my enchantment. Not long ago Kate and I were having an Internet chat when the topic of words came up.
“I was thinking on the way to work this morning,” she told me, “about the word ‘sneak’. Why is it that we always want to make the past tense ‘snuck’? It’s not even a word.”
I thought about it a minute. “You’re right,” I told her. “The past tense of leak isn’t luck. The past tense of speak isn’t spuck. Why would it seem so natural to say ‘snuck’?”
We did not — I should point out — come up with an answer. There may be one. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, the one they’ve decided not to publish in book form anymore, may have some lengthy etymological history digitalized somewhere citing the use of “snuch” by Samuel Pepys in an obscure diary entry, but for my and Kate’s purposes it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that in the dissection and parsing, a little more of the power had been released, a little like nuclear fission.
My friend Mary Catherine understands, too. Not long ago she sent me a novel about a girl whose name was Ella Minnow Pea. How incredibly clever! Mary Catherine is also the friend who gave me “The Professor and the Madman.” It’s about the editor of the aforementioned Oxford English Dictionary and one of its main contributors, a patient in the infamous Broadmoor Insane Asylum. A book about writing a dictionary — and I found it nearly impossible to put down.
Of course, not everyone feels this way about words. This is why so many people think that correct spelling isn’t important. This is why so many people use bad grammar. And profanity. These are generally the same people who are satisfied with calling a bird a bird, a tree a tree and never wonder what kind. How can they not understand that it makes a difference?
I wish, sometimes, that I could have a conversation with someone and not diagram our sentences in my head. That I could read a magazine article without circling with a red pen phrases that sound particularly musical. That I could leave a bookstore empty-handed. I wish, sometimes, but only sometimes, that I could treat words like tools, like utilitarian items, objects that are useful but without loveliness. It would make many things so much easier if I could.
Alas (Now that’s a word that has fallen on hard times and really is one of my favorites.), some things cannot be changed.
And while it is easy to be discouraged at the dearth of apparent word lovers in our video-gaming, iPhone carrying, library-closing society, there was this one moment last weekend.
I got to the wedding a little later than I had planned and most of the guests had been seated. The polite young usher asked where I would like to sit and, at just that moment, my sweet little friend Katie Anne turned from her spot on the end of one of the aisles and vigorously waved in my direction. “Right there will be just fine,” I told him.
I settled into the pew with Katie Anne, her mom and her older sister, Madeline, as the remaining guests were seated. I opened my program just as the mom gently nudged me in the ribs with her elbow and nodded toward Madeline. I leaned forward to get a look; she was hunched forward, her attention on the book in her lap. She was oblivious to everything else.
Ah. The barbarians are not yet at the gate.