Thursday, 23 July 2009

Far From The Words We Know - Sally Nicholls

"It's like lambent - everyone uses it, no one knows what it means."
A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

Like most writers, I got most of my vocabulary from novels. This meant that as a child, I would refer proudly to appen-dickes instead of appendices and that even now my fella and I will have moments of confusion over how to pronouce something.

It also means that I think I know a lot more words than I actually do.

A few months ago, I was doing a crossword with a friend.
"Transparent - five letters, starts with l?"
We sat thoughtfully for a while, then I said,
"Does limpid mean transparent?"
"I thought limpid meant ... limp," said my friend.
"But you get limpid pools, don't you?"
We looked it up and discovered that it did, indeed, mean transparent.

Another friend works for the Civil Service, and was always being asked to find, "Some factoids we can drop into the Minister's speech." Being a Classics scholar she had her suspicions about this, so looked it up. Sure enough, a factoid is 'Something which sounds like a fact while actually being false.' She then spent several months giggling every time she was asked to provide factoids.

Writers are people who know the names of things. As a child, I used to drop long words into stories simply because they sounded nice (I wasn't alone in this - T S Eliot was a firm believer in occasionally using a word which sounds nice above one which actually means what he says it means.)

As an adult, I'm discovering retrospectively what all these words mean, and I'm having a great time. 'Torrid', for example, I always thought meant passionate, as in 'a torrid love affair'. Actually, it means hot. 'Scintillating' I thought meant interesting, as in 'a scintillating discussion'. Actually, it means sparkling.

It's not so much expanding my vocabulary as focusing it. Now all I need is the courage to actually use some of these words in a sentence without getting them wrong ... who knew the ch in chthonic was silent?

15 comments:

Keren David said...

My 9-year-old son came rushing out of his room the other day. 'Mum! Mum! What does torrid mean?'
'Oh..ah..um..' Wondering what on earth he could be readng. Surely not in Beast Quest...'What's the sentence?'
'Jack was having a torrid time at the stumps.'

Nick Green said...

Keren, that sounds like a classic misused of the word 'torrid' - people seem to use it as a synonym for 'horrid', perhaps for the alliteration of 'torrid time'. It's doubtful the author means he's having a hot time at the stumps, as then he would simply say, 'Jack was hot in his cricket pads' or something.

Misunderstood and misused words of mine... For years, I thought 'off the beaten track' was actually, 'off the beat and track', which I still quite like, as it suggests both arrhythmia and deviation.

And the first time I read Harry Potter I'd never heard of the name Hermione, and in my head gave her the same emphases as macaroni. I thought, 'What an ODD name.' Mea culpa.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I always thought it was... Back from the sticks (instead of Styx)and meant... back from the counryside. In South Africa when people live out in the bush (meaning beyond a city in the bushveld) you say... he lives in the sticks. Ignorant colonial that I am!

Charlie Butler said...

Dianne, I've certainly come across "in the sticks" in that sense too. (Come to think of it, Margaret Mahy - who is a New Zealander, of course - puns on sticks/Styx in The Changeover).

-id words are difficult for me. I was quite confused when I came across Keats's description of a decomposing head as "vile with green and livid spot". Well, I'd have been angry too if I'd been decapitated and planted in a herb pot, was my reaction.

Not only that, I used to confuse flaccid and turgid, and both with tumescent. Just one reason I don't write sex scenes!

Katherine Roberts said...

My mind is still boggling about Jack's hot (or passionate!) time at the stumps... in this age of hi-lo fiction, would a word like "torrid" have got past the copy-editor of a book for 9 year olds? More likely to be an uncorrected typo for "horrid"... though of course such errors NEVER get through to final publication, do they...?

Book Maven said...

Um, "limpid" has six letters. Could the answer have been "lucid"?

Crossword fanatic

Nick Green said...

I coined a word accidentally in a primary school story: 'multidious'. It was based on my misreading of the word 'multitudinous' from my book version of 'The Dark Crystal' movie, and I believed 'multidious' meant, 'hideously huge'. I was a fun eight-year-old to be around.

Gillian Philip said...

I'm wondering if Jack was sweating because of the pressure and that's why it was 'torrid'?

I loved the Famous Five but spent my childhood thinking 'decent' (as in 'jolly decent chap') was pronounced like 'dissent'.

I like the TS Eliot-sanctioned idea of using a word that sounds nice rather than the correct one. I was surprised and delighted when my editor let me use 'uninclined', even though it doesn't exist, because it sounded far better in the context than 'disinclined'.

Sally Nicholls said...

I think T S Eliot's example was hermit crabs. Apparently it's some other crab which steals other crabs shells and scuttles down the beach in them ... but the other crab had a boring sounding name, so Eliot shrugged and ignored it.

Sorry, Mary, that was my typo. Of course I meant 6 letters.

And yes, was most shocked to discover that Phoebe wasn't pronounced Fobe and Hermione wasn't Hermy-own.

Nick Green said...

According to PickyWeedier, T S Eliot was right first time about hermit crabs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermit_crab
and wrong about being wrong. But hermit crabs are apparently quite gregarious animals.

I saw a hermit crab in the Maldives wearing a Coke can. It was probably the hermit crab equivalent of a superhero.
I AM IRON CRAB

Keren David said...

The torrid example came from one of Bob Cattell's many books about a cricket team - Glory in the Cup, Blaze of Glory etc. I think most likely torrid was used as meaning hot and stressful - after all it's not many small boys who'd realise there was another meaning (only sniggering parents). They do visit the West Indies in one book - maybe that was a bit torrid.
They're great for keen cricketers to read - full of sentences like 'Next over Mack was caught at mid-wicket and we'd slumped hoplessly from 72 for two to 80 for six.'

Sky Blue said...

The word that confused me as a youngster was misled. I always presumed it was from the verb 'to misle'and pronounced it to rhyme with 'hassled'.

Nick Green said...

> They're great for keen cricketers to read - full of sentences like 'Next over Mack was caught at mid-wicket and we'd slumped hopelessly from 72 for two to 80 for six.'


I'm going to come over all grumpy now but I fail to see the point of books like that. They might as well just go and play cricket!

Charlie Butler said...

Then again, Nick, some people can enjoy sex AND pornography - or so I'm told.

Lee said...

Gillian, heavens! Your editor let you use ... The more I hear about editors, the less I like the breed.