Friday, September 18, 2009


Words have personalities. There’s prolepsis, a condition of answering an as yet unasked question, and morganatic, which refers to the untitled bastards of nobility. Inspissation is a thermodynamic word referring to the behavior of high density liquids in narrow spaces.

There’s the neurological term perseveration, which refers to irrational graphic repetitions; limpid, which doesn’t mean what it sounds like; labile, which has nothing to do with the vagina; and the two vens, venial and venal, which have practically opposite applications despite the similarity in sound and appearance.

Then there are the technical words for mental states, like anagnosia, and states of language and meaning such as aporia, which refers to the presence of two equal and opposing views. Now, an aporia is not an oxymoron, since it doesn’t refer to nouns. How to get out of this quagmire, this syzygy, in which the sun moon and earth are aligned, without the help of a quisling, a person who takes after the Norwegian diplomat who was discovered playing both sides against the middle?

Samuel Johnson devoted his life to words, and Boswell devoted his life to the randy, carousing Johnson, but all their words have outlived them. Words are organic in that they are growing, changing, adapting like the multiple cells that populate organs. But unlike organic matter, words never really die. They are transformed by time, but they never seem to falter, even in the case of languages like Yiddish, which experience a life after death. Words can be extant and extinct at the same time. Has the Yiddish oy become a form of preverbal expression, or was the preverbal expression turned into a word? And then there are words and expressions that travel freely between languages, as if they were given some kind of diplomatic passport. Concierge is one of those words that have free passage between England and France.

Words are like clay. They can be molded into wonderful monuments to emotion, or, in the hands of jargonistas, can be turned into the KFC of expression. Narcissism and self-involvement are two words that have summarily been denuded of meaning through indiscriminate, unprofessional use. The city agency that hands out summons for noise should also ticket people who emasculate words like narcissism through after-hours use.

And then there’s feckless. That’s a simple word that hasn’t gotten its due. Feckless has a long way to go before it reaches the breaking point, as is the case with apoptosis, another one of those technical words, albeit one with some degree of poetic significance, to the extent that it refers to cell death.

Logorrhea is diarrhea of the mouth, but it is also a nice word in that it uses its Greek roots to pinpoint a condition that does to words what spendthrift does to money, which is to exhaust resources for the sake of dubious and ephemeral gains. Is this post an example of persiflage?

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