Trouble with words
Sorry. This is late because I do have trouble with words but I like to disguise it in my writing and also because my back took longer to recover than I had hoped:-
This last week i managed to temporarily cripple myself with my work practice and a very soft bed. Both things are being fixed but I haven’t done as much paper work as i would like.
Today i wanted to talk about words.
In the bottom of my head things don’t have words associated with them. I can describe them, they have qualities and parameters; heaviness, flexibility, inertia, taste. they interact according to their properties. But I have to reach to find the word associated with them. Some times it doesn’t come. Giving a name to things constrains them – a mattress is for sleeping on or for putting peas under. When you’re not doing that, is mattress the best word for the thing?
The other day we were re-arranging the furniture; a bed and a sofa bed were exchanging places with minimum movement in a small room.
I said, ” Could you hold up the stupid thing.”
My companion’s immediate rejoiner was, “Do you mean the mattress?” Fair enough there were lots of potentially stupid things in the room (including two who could use a tea break) but this particular stupid things didn’t merit any better name at that moment.
I said, ” If i knew what its name was I would call it by its name.” I often say this, because if i could remember what name a thing had i would use it, I don’t say these things for fun. It’s either use a place holder word or leave a sentence hanging while i grope for the word. (In this house multi-use words have specific meanings: doofer = TV remote.)
Any way, back to the anecdote. What would you call a big heavy floppy thing, you couldn’t get hold of, that misbehaved and wouldn’t stay propped up against the wall? Of course calling it stupid, gives it agency (a whole other story) which it doesn’t deserve – but that was all part of the situationality.
I often can’t remember the word for a thing. Yesterday it was Granny Smith apples – I wanted to illustrate a particularly lurid shade of acid green.
When I’m looking for scissors (they are usually under my knees when i’m working on the floor – hence the bad back)
I don’t say, ‘I wonder where the scissors are?’ I make scissor motions with my fingers – thinking ‘I am lacking the tool to cut paper’; then i remember that they are scissors and look under my crossed legs – and presto there they are.
As a child I remember mislaying the word ballet. I could have talked about point shoes or the opera house, but i knew i had a gap in my head for the grand unifying concept. This worried me a little, but now, after much expereince I know the word will eventually come back when it’s hungry.
The word for frying pan often goes AWOL as well. It’s the thing that sausages swim and lay their eggs in*. I suppose it’s only important to get the word out quickly if there is an emergency and you need to brain some passing supernatural creature. Other than that it’s usually sitting on the hop waiting to be cooked in.
Of course it’s especially frustrating to not be able to find the word when you are writing. It breaks up the flow – soupy soap or soapy soup? You wouldn’t want to eat either, but there is a difference between spoiled stew and runny cleanser. if only I could pin down my vowels in the right place. Not to mention diphthongs – most kites are quite quiet… Words on the page don’t have sound unless you speak them out loud. They are whole conglomerations of letters not made of constituent parts – syllables? Then if you spell out the letters they fly away before the end of the word – so the i in quit and quite are indistinguishable.
On the other hand i’m not afraid of owning words I don’t know how to pronounce. Or can’t like philosopher. I need a run up at that as I usually get the stress in the wrong place. I’m sure there are rules somewhere to allow to to tell when a photographer is being photographed, but it’s absent from my head.
It’s not just concreate things that can loose their words – it’s just easier to know they’ve gone astray when your faced with a ____. Concepts are even more slippery if you can’t define them. Just what do you mean when you want to thing the thing in the thingy thing?
Sometimes I have almost the right word but not quite, that’s when the online thesaurus comes in handy. But more frequently i find that i’ve added meaning to an existing word, or elided both definition and ‘spelling’. Then once I have past a word through my very own Great Vowel Shift, i’ve got a neologism, a confused audience and a non-functionable dictionary.
Before I got my dyslexia diagnosis, it, to my mind had always been discussed in terms of the mechanics of reading and writing. If you can’t get the black squiggles on the page to stay still enough to decode them everything in education is going to be a struggle to comprehend. But after a decade of contemplation on the matter I think it’s more about how the brain, how the mind works – how it manages its relationship to our daily experiences than hand eye co-ordination.
It is because we are such a literate society that the thing we call dyslexia is at its most visible in the struggle to master written communications.
In my head words are a class of objects that are stored elsewhere from the objects that they are nominally associated with. This make learning foreign languages hard, because I never had enough time to let them sink into the morass that is my memory. The small vocabulary that I do remember, comes out of my mouth naturally, but i don’t know if it’s useful or accurate.
You don’t have to have a word for an object, an action or an idea. They can interact anyway you can think for them, and then you have to stop and go back, and work out a way of communicating all your insights. Is this the source of creativity and humour?
Is a mattress still a mattress when it’s been lying by the side of a motorway for a week; soaking wet and smelling of fox. It still has some properties of a mattress – big and floppy – but it has lost a lot of its essential mattress-ness – no one is going to let it anywhere near a princess or a pea. It’s undergone some marvellous transformation that’s turned it from furnishing to rubbish.
It has only just occurred to me how can we allow things to belong to many classes of object at the same time. That’s the danger of assigning Names to things; you put them in one pigeon hole.
So this is one meditation on how my mind works – sometimes naming a thing closes down it’s possibilities and in my case utilising an object in a novel way loses it’s name. I don’t know many small children so sofa cushions aren’t parts of play forts, for example, but i share my home with cats so cardboard boxes are for sitting in and chewing as much as storing items in. Things and their words should only have the loosest connections.
I didn’t realise how much I had written here until I started editing. And this did need editing if only to stop me gadding about all over the place. I hope you’ve followed me at least some of the way and picked up a bit of the confoundment I live in. And next week, I will be more active and less concerned with how to husband all those little black squiggles in to something useful.
* The sausage is a cunning bird / it’s wings are long and wavy/ it swims around the frying pan / and lays it’s eggs in gravy.