When my daughter, Lily was 2 or 3, she had a playmate named Jack. I put them in side by side car seats in my station wagon one afternoon and tuned in to their chatter during our drive, probably to McDonalds to watch them jump in the ball pit and eat french fries. At one point, Jack asked Lily: “Do you like toenails?” I’ve forgotten her reply but I have never forgotten that exchange, a picture of how we cast about in the world looking for our tribe members, those who are like minded in perhaps offbeat ways, that laugh at the same absurdities and that offer us the opportunity to connect over shared interests and speak in the shorthand of mutual understanding.
My mother and I are both word geeks. I feel a little thrill every time I discover someone that confesses to reading the dictionary for fun, knowing that most people would probably compare that activity to contemplating toenails. But for me, language is a gateway for imagination and creation—and I know that both my parents supplied the slipstreams that launched me into my love affair with vocabulary.
Mom says that she likes any word that has more than two syllables so when I settled in for a discussion of her favorite words I expected an elevated, enlightened discourse. As usual, she surprised me and said her current favorite word was ‘excrementous’. “Can you guess what it means?” she asked. “Yes, um mom—is that actually a word?” She assures me it is, but the ghost of Noah Webster assures me it isn’t. The closest superlative for excrement I can find is excremental. But, returning to her favorite word that isn’t actually a word, I said: “What do you like about it?” She said: “It’s a highfalutin way of saying shitty. For instance, at a dinner party if you didn’t like the meal and wanted to say something sincere, you could tell the host or hostess that the food was simply excrementous.”
“Yes you could, if you never wanted to see them again.”
“Any other favorite words mom?” She says she loves the word, pedantic. When I ask what the allure there is, she says, “Well most people don’t know what it means and have to ask me when I use it, which of course makes me feel superior”. “Rather pedantic of you, don’t you think?” I say. She likes ‘unctuous’ too, because it sounds like its definition: oily, sycophantic, excessively fawning. I don’t know exactly when she has the occasion to unpack these ten dollar descriptors but I’m sure she is ever at the ready. Personally I like it when she dips into language that belongs to other eras and adds words like woebegone to her commentary.
I ask her if she has any favorite poetry. She says the entire Scripture, translated in the King James comes to mind, particularly the Psalms. She cites Gerard Manley Hopkins, among the finest of the Victorian poets and repeats a few lines of The Grandeur Of God:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God
It will flame out like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things:
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
She sighs and then says, “Joe and I always loved limericks too”. I remember my stepfather’s cocktail party patter including a few recitations, most notably Robert Service poems like The Cremation Of Sam McGee but I tell her I don’t recall her rhymes. She laughs and says, “Probably because they were too bawdy but I was noted for them and in my drinking days we spent many hilarious hours in the evenings, pouring and rendering.” “Can you give me an example?” She thought for a minute and said:
There once was a whore named Tups
who confessed one night in her cups
that the height of her folly was diddling a collie
but she got a nice price for the pups.
Sorry I asked.