There is nothing I love more than words.
Reading and writing are the base passions for me. So much so that up until recently I could be a bit obnoxious about them.
In the past, when conversations got onto the topic of books I tended to veer in weird directions. I always want to talk about the odd books and authors who have their fingers in heart – Mac Wellman and Witold Gombrowicz and Jerzy Kosinski all the way down to Dostoevsky and Virginia Woolf and JRR Tolkien and Gogol. I would blather on, quote, proselytize. And if the conversation somehow staggered down to authors I look down upon, I actively looked down on them.
Eventually I learned to control this behavior because it was never productive. People do not respond well to rabid speech-making and the quoting of authors with names they can’t even pronounce, no matter how well-intentioned. More importantly, people don’t want to be told that their favorite reading material is garbage and not a whole lot better than watching TV.
It took me a long time to learn to say that Stephen King is a master at creating character.
He really is.
I’ll never say that The Da Vinci Code is a good book, but I’ve learned to say nothing, and just unfriend that person from Facebook and ignore their texts.
I also watch a lot of TV now.
So, to some degree, I’ve undergone the process of normalization, the tender spiritual spraining which social and professional lives inflict upon us.
Speaking of television, briefly, this same process is again and again reinforced by (arguably) all TV sitcoms, in which again and again, a character begins to build their life up and away from the comedic rut, only to be pulled back down by their long-standing friends and co-stars. They usually, then, give a speech about how friends are worth more than any talent, job, love, happiness, relocation etc.
I still love words more than anything.
A colleague of mine introduced me to a theory, recently, which states the following:
Never pass a word you don’t know without looking it up.
The reasoning for this is as follows:
When a you do not completely understand a word, concept, or idea, you will immediately begin to lose interest in what you are doing. You will lose the ability to follow a conversation or book. You will begin to yawn. Your energy and comprehension will drop drastically.
We were taught in school to learn words by context. For true understanding, “context learning” is in essence lying to yourself – you cannot learn a word by “context” any more than you can guess at a person’s soul based on what clothes they are wearing. You might get a near approximation, but more often your conclusions will be weird, incorrect, and woefully incomplete.
I have had this demonstrated to me a hundred times over the last few weeks because I have begun to look up every word I encounter which I cannot define confidently. Again and again, I trip over my own self-inflicted bungles: I find that I thought “salubrious” meant kind or smooth; that “tautology” was just a bad argument, and that a “solipsism” was the same thing; that “homunculus” was just a deformed monster; that “veldt” was a veil between life and death; “gelid” meant gooey and “stertorous” meant stentorian, “perspicacity” was precociousness and “facile” and flaccid were synonymous.
Learning by context is an erroneous and dangerous tool invented by lazy, or well-meaning but beleaguered teachers, to make their jobs easier. Just like giving the student the answer and then asking them, while nodding, if it is the correct answer.
So not only did I realize, over time, how easily I lied myself into learning the wrong things by context (and got really good, really fast, at knowing when I was lying to myself) – but I have learned a shit-ton of new words, and a little about the ideas which go along with them.
Because to learn a word like “tautology” you must learn something about rhetoric. To know what “proprioception” means you have to learn a bit about kinesthetics and neuroscience. You can’t know “topological prominence” without knowing a bit about topography.
I hope to use this as a space to share those words with the internet. A list of interesting words, and the thoughts which go along with them.