[A longer version of these thoughts was presented September 15 at the Quincy, Ill., Unitarian Church.]
People who hang around me long enough soon discover that I have a mad fondness for obscure, old-fashioned, and out-of-the way words. This is true for many people who love to write, but also true for others as well. There’s a special pleasure in finding a word that’s been lying around for hundreds of years, perhaps, just waiting for you to pick it up and put it in your pocket, like a coin on the sidewalk. A few years ago I picked up “petrichor,” which is the smell of earth after a rain, and ever since then I’ve been hollering out “petrichor” at every opportunity. A new old word is like a gift from the linguistic universe, a way of expressing something that previously seemed inexpressible. It’s a feeling similar to the experience I have whenever I get a new eyeglass prescription. Something that was blurry and indistinct, or perhaps even outside of my awareness, suddenly comes into sharp, precise existence. That’s what happens when you find a good, old, right word. The little dimple between your nose and your upper lip becomes a philtrum. And you’ve got a name for something previously unnamed. And what’s better is when you look up the origin of the word “philtrum,” and learn that it comes from a Greek word that means “love charm,” and now you’ll never look at a philtrum the same way again.
Other old-fashioned words are ones that you know quite well, but just never get the chance to use. Like steed, for example. Who wouldn’t love to be able to use steed now and then? But unless you’re willing to sound a little ridiculous, the opportunity doesn’t arise, even if you do ride horses. But it’s a good word to have around. Still others are words that we might want to possess just because they’re so aesthetically pleasing. When you’re driving past a cornfield at sunset and see a flock of blackbirds or starlings all moving in unison, as if the entire flock is a single organism controlled by one brain, the word for that phenomenon is murmuration. I’ll probably never get to use murmuration in the wild, but I’m glad to know it’s there. Likewise with sillion, which is the name for the little furrow you make with a plow in preparation for planting seeds.
Old words reflect older ways of thinking, and thus they are a glimpse into history. I am struck by how many of our commonplace expressions and idioms have their origin from either agriculture or seafaring, two occupations that the great majority of Americans today have little or no knowledge of. When we talk about feeling in the doldrums, for example, we’re likely to forget that the Doldrums is an old word for an actual geographical location notorious for its lack of wind, known technically as the intertropical covergence zone. In the age of sail, getting caught in the Doldrums meant an extended period of forced idleness, debilitation, and inactivity that was not only tedious, but could even be fatal if your ship’s food stocks ran out. And who but the most dedicated farmers among us will recall that if you sow your wild oats, you’re likely to get a poor harvest, or none at all, and that you’re better off sowing those boring old tame, domesticated, tried-and-true oats. And what’s so bad about it when your chickens come home to roost? Nothing, it might seem, until you think about it in the original context of the metaphor. The original meaning of the phrase was that whatever you send out into the world will always come back to haunt you. In fact, the original expression was that curses are like chickens, in that they always come home to roost. As we might say today, karma’s gonna get you. So when I see an old-fashioned word, and understand where it came from, I am in a real sense looking back in time.
The other side of this observation is that some old-fashioned words deserve the obscurity they’ve been cast into, for they represent a way of thinking that we have thankfully outgrown. I’ve been reading a book lately called “From Missouri: An American Farmer Looks Back,” by a man named Thad Snow. Thad Snow was a farmer in the Bootheel during the first half of the twentieth century; he bought land near Charleston in 1910 and farmed it for more than forty years. Now Thad Snow was a true radical, one of those classic curmudgeonly Midwestern freethinkers who popped up from time to time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His most famous moment occurred in January 1939, when he partnered with a sharecroppers’ activist named Owen Whitfield to support a widespread sharecroppers’ sit-in across southeast Missouri after many of them had been evicted by their landowners. He was the only major landowner to support the sit-in, and he was branded a traitor to his class by the other large farmers, who fancied themselves to be a plantation aristocracy of sorts. But in his memoir, written in 1954, he repeatedly refers to Owen Whitfield, his colleague in the sit-in, as a “darky.” Even given Snow’s penchant for making provocative remarks, which seems irrestible to him, this use of language that was out of date and offensive – even back then – makes me think less of him, and to reconsider his stance on behalf of the sharecroppers. Maybe he wasn’t acting out of principle, but just out of foolish contrariness. His language reveals more about his thinking than perhaps he had intended.
And that’s where I am headed with my thoughts on old-fashioned words. In linguistics, there’s a famous and rather controversial concept called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it boils down to this: Our language shapes our thinking. In greater detail, the hypothesis makes the case that all languages focus on certain aspects of life, and the difference in those focuses leads to differences in our thinking. It’s a more scientific version of the old “Eskimos have forty words for snow” idea. If we have the words to express an idea, it will get expressed; if we do not have the words, it likely will not. Linguists have studied the many variations in languages around the world, such as languages that do not have “count nouns” (such as one, two, three, and so forth) and languages that use cardinal directions instead of concepts such as left and right. As you might imagine, the speakers of these languages possess some interesting capabilities that English speakers lack, and lack some capabilities that English speakers own without even being aware that they do. To illustrate that point, linguist Lera Boroditsky points out that although speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, an aboriginal language from Western Australia, do not have what we think of as the basic concept of left and right, they do have a remarkably precise sense of orientation to their landscape. Even a small Kuuk Thaayorre child is able to point north-northwest at any moment, while we advanced Americans would need to get out our phones and hope for the best. The inherent limitations and biases of language are the subject of Suzette Haden Elgin’s science fiction novel series Native Tongue. In this dystopian series, set in the 22nd century, women have been stripped of their civil rights, and a group of female linguists create a language for women as an act of resistance. In this language, called Laadan, there are distinctively separate words for a range of female experiences. For example, there’s a word for being pregnant, a separate word for being pregnant for the first time, and another for being pregnant joyfully.
The words we possess shape the thoughts we can express. If we acquire, and habitually use, the language of violence and exclusion, we enable violent and exclusionary thinking. And the opposite is also true: acquiring and using language of appreciation and beauty bends our minds in those directions. Ruth Dahl, the narrator and central character of Jane Hamilton’s wonderful novel The Book of Ruth, tells us how the verbal poverty of her upbringing has affected her:
We were the products of our limited vocabulary: we had no words for savory odors or the colors of the winter sky or the unexpected compulsion to sing. The language I had to speak to be understood is not the language of poetry or clear thinking.
One of the most repeatedly humbling experiences of my life is teaching literature to young people, because a lot of young people are not instinctively inclined toward literature in the way that earlier generations were. They’ve grown up accustomed to other modes of expression, and a lot of school work involves reading for main ideas and essential elements, not the kind of slow, savoring reading that literary study asks. So you have to re-teach them into different reading habits: don’t count the number of pages till the end, but stop and reflect every so often. Instead of reading for the general sense of a passage, read for every last bit of significance. And when you encounter an unfamiliar word, celebrate! It’s a gift. Needless to say, that approach doesn’t always go over in class. But once in a while, a student will pick up the spirit and discover the hidden revelations of old-fashioned words, the ferocious rigor of keelhaul or the sweet promise of bower.