QA 33. May 2012. It’s only words, and words are all I have…

It is often forgotten that (dictionaries) are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature. Jorge Luis Borges

The hard drive of my laptop crashed two days before I was to leave on a residential writing retreat. I took it philosophically (of course) and looked forward to five days of writing by hand. But when I realised I’d also be without my online dictionaries, I packed a neglected old companion: a second-hand Collins English Dictionary bought a dozen years ago when I was writing my thesis. Subtitled A Dictionary of the English Language containing over 100,000 References and Numerous Supplements and edited by Alexander H. Irvine, it was first published in 1956. It’s a pleasantly compact hardcover edition complete with faded dust-wrap and a frayed plastic cover. The R10 price is still pencilled on the flyleaf. In the next few days, we fell in love all over again.

collins dictionary1

 Any dictionary can supply the proper name for some thing. That yellow digging machine droning away in the background: is it a backhoe or a bulldozer? It’s a backhoe. I looked it up. So now you have the right picture in your head – or you can look it up, if you’re not sure. Backhoe? Backhoe. Now we’re on the same page.

This is the mundane function of a dictionary. But in its more occult role, a dictionary is a dowsing rod for the “irrational and magical” roots of language. You have to find the one that sings for you as my Collins does for me. Even its guidewords are sonorous incantations:

Dravidian to dregs, dreich to drip

stood to stork and storm to straggle

lick life, lift light.

The sorcery of written language is the remarkable way it contacts and connects us. I write with you in mind, not knowing who or where or even when you are. Yet right now, in this moment when you read what I am writing right now, we are somehow in touch. Words call us out. They invoke, evoke, provoke. And when the separation between writer and reader and writing disappears, we are enchanted in a strange, shared world where time and space are undone. The dictionary is a writer’s book of spells that bind us in these deep currents. (What, you never noticed the relation between spelling and spells?)

With its archaisms and its etymologies, my dictionary also links me to my own heritage, to ancestors I know in my bones. The English I use echoes and refracts the old languages of northern Europe, ancient Latin and Greek, and the earlier roots these share with Persian and Sanskrit. It carries shards of meaning, traces of the different ways we have come together in the past 5,000 years to speak of the world and understand it, to express ourselves, to question, inform, entertain. Ernest Weekley’s introduction marvels that a mere 26 letters, combined and recombined, have yielded the works of Shakespeare, Newton and Dickens. He names this the “alchemy by which the raw constituents of the alphabet are wrought to gold”.

We easily admit that words can be powerful, without wondering how that power is generated. I fancy that it is these uncanny connections between persons across time and space, that they create a force as strong as chemical bonds. We feel it reverberate in the stories we tell, in the stories that tell us.

With due respect to Mr Borges: the deceptively humble dictionary is more than an “artificial repository”. It is the key to the source.

7 thoughts on “QA 33. May 2012. It’s only words, and words are all I have…”

  1. Thanks for the great writing. My sociology lecturer could never understand how I could list people like Plato as significant others.

    Cymatics apparently shows how certain languages’ sounds actually make the shapes of their letters, among them Sanskrit, Hebrew and Chaldean, which has a flame alphabet.

    I resonate with what you expereince wordwise and love how words can create. I grew up Afrikaans and with English being my second language, I can see the etymology and broader historical context of words coming from the Low Dutch which provides the short, basic words. “My hand is in warm water.”, is even spelled the same. I find English a very enticing language that can Enchant and whose main strength seems her ability to be inclusive.

    The magical aspect of “juggler” is not connotated nowadays, but the Germanic “jongleur” has it still.


  2. (What, you never noticed the relation between spelling and spells?) – also that the magical “grimoire” is derived from or shares origins with “grammer”. Here follows an extract from “Leaves of Yggdrasil”, a book about the runic alphabet:

    Now go back further, and imagine a time when the written language was so new that most people didn’t even know of its existence. Imagine that you are a runner, and that there is a crisis in the land. A wise man has summoned you, given you a tablet of clay and instructions to run to a neighbouring land and present this tablet to your king. For some reason beyond your comprehension you are told to guard this tablet with your life, and to hand it over intact. When you arrive exhausted at your destination, the king takes this tablet in his hands, gazes at it in silent contemplation for a while, then proceeds to fire questions at you. To your astonishment his questions reveal a knowledge of the crisis which has happened several days running distant. By some extraordinary magic this little clay tablet seems to have spoken to the king, conveying knowledge of distant places, telling him that support is needed… Is it surprising that writing was early associated with magic?

  3. Yes, I completed the words to the song before I got to the main body of writing and, yes, my interest was piqued. Infact I was so captivated,( i.e fascinated or enchanted), that I had no choice but to read further.
    I love your writing Helen almost as much as I love my Collins Pocket English Dictionary. The Dictionary is my Big Book and I know that by consulting it daily my “words are made flesh”.
    This is a good thing for me as, coming from Yorkshire stock, my idiosyncratic speech pattern has sometimes, quite simply, diffused my sharp verbal response to something I was not in agreement with or, at other times, caused my audience to keel over with laughter when there was nothing amusing (i.e funny) in what I had said.
    With reference to my Collins Pocket English Dictionary I can, with all authority, keep the verb but change the word and simply say “go away!”. Thus, with my expanded vocabulary, the person in question does f-off, literally, by themselves.
    And yes – we are then “on the same page”.

  4. Posted on behalf of Pam: Thank you. Thank you. I took a break in my wool spinning to check my mail. What wonderful yarns we weave?

  5. Posted on behalf of Sandra: Thanks Helen!
    Was wondering; if words and communication connects people then speaking different languages naturally separates us. Perhaps there’ll come a time when we’ll communicate universally without words. Or alternatively as our brain capacity increases, we’ll learn all these languages as children and then be able to select at will the best word or phrase or metaphor from all the different languages as we speak in order to best express ourselves and everyone will be able to understand..

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