The first step to learning anything is admitting that you don’t know it.
Sounds simple, but many people—maybe most people—can’t do it. At my part-time job, with an in-school literacy program, I see this tendency, to lie low in the face of ignorance, present as early as 1st grade.
My boss at that job, a source of wisdom and strong opinions on many subjects, condemns this tendency as a downward spiral of suffering and self-fulfilling ignorance. The majority of people, she insists, spend their lives not understanding what’s said to them and never knowing why; the reason behind this, the reason that you lose track of what a person’s saying, or get bored while reading a book or learning a lesson, is because you heard a word or concept you didn’t know, or which you thought you knew, but couldn’t understand in the context because you didn’t actually fully know it. You didn’t stop the lesson and learn the word, and your brain, distressed by this, derailed.
This simple revelation is part of the reason I started this blog, I told a new friend today. We got on this subject because we met at the coffee shop and became friends over the mutual task of avoiding the work we were at the coffee shop to do by telling one another about the work we were at the coffee shop to do. Procrastacquaintances, I call us.
There’s more to it, of course, which I’ll get to in later posts. But he’d asked me what the most useful word I’d learned thus far was—which word that I’d covered did I use most in regular conversation? I realized that the most useful word I’d learned in this project is one I hadn’t covered in the blog yet.
Truculent, adj.: 1. Eager or quick to fight or argue, pugnacious. I’ve been using the word truculent a lot lately, as it’s a good way to describe several real-life people who’ve been pissing me off. The best cats I know are unpredictable, touchy, destructive, truculent.
2. Expressing bitter opposition; scathing, vitriolic. His truculent speech against the president gained him ardent support. Truculent opposition is bringing widespread attention to the proposed school closings.
Fantast, n.: A visionary, a dreamer. Comes from the Greek for “boaster,” which is a nice correlation, because it implies that “fantasy” and “fantastic” come from the concept of boasting. There’s a thin line in our own culture between idiocy and optimism; there’s pressure both to accept the cold facts of reality and to “follow your dreams” and outshine your neighbors. Scott Meslow’s proposed resurrection of Twin Peaks makes him look like a fantast, but here’s hoping he’s more of a prophet.
Who likes laughing? I do. I don’t think I’m particularly prone to it, but I think it’s healthy, I love to do it. Some people laugh all of the time. And we’ve all known one of those particularly grim folks who never laugh.
Why don’t they laugh? Maybe they think that by focusing intently on the practicalia of their lives, and by keeping anyone from seeing under their efficacious surface, they will somehow be more productive, more effective, or maybe more impressive.
I don’t actually know the answer to that question, but I do know that there’s a word for these people. An agelast is a person who does not laugh. They are agelastic. The Greek root is agelastos, “not laughing.”
While this word does not have to mean literally never laughing—it can mean “joyless” or “grim”—there are a few people who have been recorded as total agelasts. Isaac Newtown is said to have laughed only once in his life. Stalin, big surprise, was described as a literal agelast by several people.
Non-human animals, incidentally, cannot laugh—they are all agelastic, though not by choice.
We are the laughing animals.
A gelast is a person who laughs a lot. Gelastic can mean prone to laughter, but it can also refer to anything that is used in or meant to be the subject of laughter—a gelastic statement, a gelastic insult, a gelastic death threat, a gelastic dildo.
It also refers to certain epileptic fits, very severe ones, apparently.
A hypergelast is a cachinator, someone excessively prone to laughter. Anthony Trollope, who wrote lots of books I’ve never read, was supposed to laugh all the time, and is said even to have died giggling.
Laughter can eradicate meaning by making a thing ridiculous, or relieve tension, or cause joy, but the act is gravid with unexplored meaning. There are many different theories on where laughter comes from and why we do it. Freud believed that it was related to inhibited desires (of course); some believe that it has to do with a feeling of superiority and security over the suffering of others. My college theater’s lead designer held that laughter is a response to perceived danger being escaped; we laugh instead of running away, to show that the threat is an absurd one.
There’s obviously no consensus. What we can say is that Trollope knew how to go out: laughing in the face of the unknown, asserting his gelastic humanity to the universe’s humorless darkness.