According to my best friend wikipedia there are roughly 600,000 words in the English language, with 25,000 neologisms added every year by primary and secondary speakers living in a myriad of vibrant cultures from all over the planet. How many of these words do you know? How many do I know?
I’m pretty sure that since I was a child I’ve always been in the middle of reading a book. I feel lost and aimless if I don’t have a book somewhere nearby waiting to be read, and I feel idiotic if I somehow find myself in a situation where I’m able to read a book but don’t actually have one at hand, e.g., on the subway, waiting at an office, &c.
Yet as a result of burying my oddly-shaped nose in the dusty pages I regularly run across words whose meanings I cannot readily recall, even if I’ve read or heard them before; and lately I’ve begun to combat this verbal deficiency by writing down all the words I don’t know in the back of the books I find them in, when I find them, with the stipulation that I look these words up once I finish reading the book and then try to apply them in my own writing if the opportunity presents itself. After all, the limits of my language mean the limits of my world; if I can expand my language I can expand the universe.
For the last two books I read—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory—two trends were readily obvious: that McCarthy has a fondness for Native American words, like siwash (a camp without a tent, and a word with a fascinating etymology that I knew nothing about) and travois (a sort of uncomfortably Frenchified sled), and that Nabokov has at some point thumbed his way through medical and anatomical dictionaries in search of a number of very unique terms, which have been cataloged by this website, and that he has an amazing propensity for using exquisite synonyms for color, such as xanthic for yellow, umber and glaucous and amaranth for themselves, and on and on.
It is rare that one meets with something that is simply green or blue in Nabokov’s dreams; each color is modified by its attachment to some symbolical object or idea, and therefore transformed into a precise mixture that is really unrivaled in literature, so far as I know. There is no other author I’m aware of who cares so much about the right daubs of light in his palette. Every color is complex, every color requires concentration and consideration, and makes us wonder if we are not really looking at butterflies under microscopes instead of reading, and when we look up from his novels we must ask ourselves what kind of cheap amber wavelength our lampshade is really tinted to, and how solar does this old pillow really flush under the 明 of an endless lightbulb manufactured in a country with higher energy standards than our own? He writes in his lectures that nothing about great literature is simple, and his work is certainly great literature.
And as for McCarthy’s siwash, I’m aware of a French synonym that is a thousand times more beautiful—bivouac—the discovery of which inspired me to write a short story about people setting up a camp “without cover” in open piedmont under the palpebral, nictitating levin of a thunderstorm, with bright, laciniating fulminations and lacerating drisk, and without the flickering lambency of an open flame.
Learning a strange, new, and totally unknown language brought me to a point yesterday when I wanted to use a Korean word in place of an English one, thinking it far better and more appropriate but aware that no one would ever understand it if I wrote it down—this sort of aporia appears to have only encouraged the polyglot Nabokov, monstrously poetically fluent in at least two tongues since childhood, but I myself hesitated to use the Korean word for superstition, 미신, mee-sheen, as an adjective, which would have been the rather phlegmy-sounding but respectably hellenized misinous had I inseminated the ovary of the idea with a few electronic letters typed out on a virtual page.
But the word is unnecessary; it adds nothing but a new three-syllabled cacophony to my own language; Korean has words and concepts that are totally foreign to English, such as the excellent and very common really!, 진짜!, jeen-cha!, which one hears exclaimed in fury and hilarity everywhere constantly, and 한, Han, the peculiar malaise of a people who have gotten the short end of the historical stick for the last few centuries, and who have likewise lately given their lives to improving their country, with little gained in return beyond anger, sadness, frustration, and exhaustion.
Such a term is quite dark and I think quite foreign to most of the happy, go-lucky Leave-It-To-Beavers we have skipping and skidaddling along the sun-dappled sidewalks of estadounidense suburbia, but the word 한 is also interesting and peculiar because it is spelled and pronounced exactly the same way as the word Koreans use for themselves, and the sound is found everywhere else in the language besides—in one of two words for one (Korean has two number systems for some extremely idiosyncratic reason), and in the pretty word for sky or heaven, 하늘, ha-nul, off the top of my head, even though this word is probably only coincidentally phonetically related to 한 and not in any way a product of hard etymology as a result of ha-nul’s division of the consonants into separate syllables, even if han-ul sounds the same as ha-nul to this anglicized ear.
Uselessly, pointlessly, I feel compelled to mention that their word for themselves is probably related to that Mongolian word all of us know and love, Khan, or leader; one day I will be able to read and plumb Korean etymological dictionaries, and access a new unknown world and universe barred to me, for now, by laziness and the slow expansion of difficult knowledge.