It’s the second Wednesday of June so it’s time for a new author interview at the dictionary project. In our author interviews, guest authors discuss their relationship to words and provide answers to dictionary project words bibliomanced specifically for them.
This week, travel with Lorraine Berry into the woods and across the forest floor, over to an Irish Pub, across the ocean to Sienna, Italy, into the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and back again!
1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:
I’ve had moments of intense love affairs with the English language. When I was younger, I used to read the dictionary and try to memorize new words. As a junior in high school, we were forced, in Honors English, to learn thirty new words a week, and at first, I resented it, but since then, I’ve been so grateful for the practical usage I still get out of those words.
What really lit me on fire about English, however, was taking Latin. I abhorred Latin—the constant charts and tables in order to learn each new word were painful. But what I learned to treasure about Latin was that it made each English word I encountered a puzzle. I found myself wanting to know etymologies. Sometimes, it would be obvious to me because I would recognize the Latin root. But rooting around in the dictionary got me excited about knowing the history of a word: Greek or Latin or Anglo-Saxon? Middle English? Related to what? First used when? All of that word stuff was yummy. It filled up some part of my brain that didn’t know it had been empty.
When I teach, I encourage students to buy themselves the biggest dictionaries they can find, and I especially encourage them to understand where words come from. It’s another way of unlocking the puzzle of our human existence, I think.
2. What is your current favorite word?
I learned a new word just this past weekend. My partner Rob and I were sitting at one of our haunts—one of those faux Irish pubs in a hotel that we like in spite of the décor—because it’s quiet and it has a fireplace. We’ve made a ritual of my bringing essays to grade and him bringing a novel, and we sip Jameson’s as the day slips away.
This past weekend, however, I was between grading spates and had brought a novel of my own to read: Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases, and it happened: in the middle of a passage was a word I didn’t recognize: dysthymic. I guessed at its meaning from the context, and cursed the pub for not having a dictionary. (I suppose I could engage my own romanticized vision of the bard here and wonder why someplace that serves Irish spirits does not serve the Irish spirit and keep a fucking dictionary around.) Rob had technology at his fingertips, however, and looked up the word on his iPhone: dysthymia refers to chronic depression, and Englander had referred to his characters as dysthymics.
Jesus, did it seem appropriate. Sometimes, I think my entire thirties (I’m forty-nine now) were spent as the poster child dysthymic. The day we were having Saturday—cold and blustery and gunmetal gray—felt as if April, which had come in with Apollonian glory, had gotten stuck in some northern latitude doldrums—when you know that it should be spring outside, but honestly, a glance through the window leaves you wondering whether it’s November or March.
So, until this damn weather clears up, I’m going with dysthymic as my current favourite word.
3. What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?
Has anyone else noticed that we go through cycles of overused, misused words? At one point in my teaching, students couldn’t get through a paragraph without inserting extraneous “basicallys” to their language. Now the word that makes me twitch is literally.
(I should say that, from a political standpoint, the political language of obfuscation and outright lie telling enrages me. But in sticking with the wording of the question, I’m toning down my response from rage to obnoxiousness.)
I’m not sure why the word “literally” has undergone a figurative blooming. It reminds of the way an invasive species can take down an eco-system. Directly across the road from where I live is a small gorge that, in years past, has been full of my favourite summer wildflower: chicory. Chicory is a shade of blue that, depending on the angle of the sun, may appear purple through gray, but mostly stays a shade a tad lighter than cornflowers.
A couple of years ago, wild parsnip (pastinaca sativa) appeared on the scene. The stalks are tall and the flowers resemble a Queen Anne’s Lace, except they’re baby-shit yellow and spiked out so that the flowers appear to be giant hands.
They are more than an eyesore. They contain a photosensitizing chemical that, should you brush the plant with your hands or body then expose your skin to sunlight, will cause burns and blisters. Removing the plant requires the wearing of a hazmat suit.
Notice I didn’t say “literally wearing a hazmat suit.” I’ve become allergic to the word. It is so insidious in my students’ speech that it causes me to involuntarily pull away, as if contact with the word may leave residue on my skin.
4. Please respond to the following words and definitions, picked exclusively and randomly for you:
dust (dəst) n. [ME.; AS.; akin to ON. dust; IE. base dhus- (<dhewes; see DEER), to fly like dust, dust-colored, etc.; cf. DUN, DUSK], 1. powdery earth or any powdered matter fine enough to be easily suspended in air. 2. a cloud of such matter; hense, 3. confusion; turmoil 4. earth 5. mortal remains disintegrated or thought of as disintegrating to earth or dust. 6. a humble or lowly condition. 7. anything worthless. 8. [British], ashes, rubbish, etc. 9. [Rare], a particle, gold deposits, hence, 12. [Slang], money. v.t. 1. to sprinkle as by brushing, shaking, or wiping (often with off). v.i. 1. to remove dust, especially from furniture, floors, etc. 2. to bathe in dust, said of a bird. 3. to become dusty
bite the dust, to fall in battle, be defeated.
lick the dust, 1. to fall in battle; be defeated. 2. to be servile; grovel
make dust fly, 1. to act energetically. 2. To move swiftly
shake the dust off of one’s feet, to leave in anger or contempt: Matt. 10:14.
throw dust in (someone’s eyes), to mislead or practice deception on (someone).
I found ashes once.
Human ashes, in a box, that had been washed up from their shallow burial ground by a series of storms. I didn’t open the box; I wanted the body inside to maintain its privacy, but I did make sure that they were reburied properly.
Dust and ashes, it seems to me, are our inevitable form. And while I know ashes are grittier than dust, I imagine myself blown across the universe when I’m dead.
tway·blade (ˈtwāˌblād), n. [archaic tawy, two (ME. twei; see TWAIN; + blade], 1. a variety of orchid with two broad leaves and small, red-veined, yellow flowers. 2. any of several orchids having two leaves springing from the roots.
I hike in the woods near every day. As far as I know, I’ve never seen twayblade, although I recognize the shape and color. The flower reminds me of Dutchmen’s Breeches, which appear to be a row of pants hanging on a line of washing. A couple of years ago, I encountered a plant that took me days to name. Like twayblade, it had two leaves coming up from the roots, and then two magenta petals with tiny pom-poms on the end of each petal. Its name? Gaywings. Gaywings and twayblades, I think, would make lovely partners on the forest floor.
mark (mark), n. [ME. merke, marke; AS. mearc, orig., boundary, hence boundary sign, hence sign, etc. (cf. MARCH, boundary); akin to G. mark, boundary, boundary stone, landmark, etc., marke, a token, mark; IE. base *mareg-, seen also in L. margo, an edge, border (cf. MARGIN); basic idea either “extending” or “visible boundary:], 1. a visible trace or impression on a surface, as a line, dot, spot, stain, scratch, blemish, mar, bruise, dent, etc.; distinctive feature produced by drawing, coloring, stamping, etc. 2. a sign, symbol, or indication; specially, a) a printed or written sign or stroke: as, punctuation marks. b) a brand, label, seal, or tag put on an article to show the owner, maker, etc.: as trade-mark. c) a sign or indication of some quality, character, etc.: as, politeness and consideration for others are marks of a good upbringing. d) a letter or figure used in schools, etc. to show quality of work or behavior; grade; rating: as, a mark of B in history. e) a cross or other sign made on a document as a substitute for a signature by a person unable to write. 3. a standard of quality, proficiency, propriety, etc.: as, this novel doesn’t come up to the mark. 4. importance; distinction; eminence; as, a man of mark. 5. impression; influence: as, good teachers leave their mark on their students. 6. a visible object of known position, serving as a guide or point of reference: as, the tower was a mark for fliers. 7. a line, dot, notch, etc. used to indicate position, as on a graduated scale. 8. a) an object aimed at; target. b) an object desired or worked for; end; aim; goal. 9. an observing; a taking notice; heed. 10. [Archaic], a) a boundary, border, or borderland; march. b) among Germanic peoples in earlier times, land held or worked in common by a community. 11. in nautical usage, a) one of the knots, bits of leather, or colored cloth placed at intervals on a sounding line to indicate depths in fathoms. b) the Plimsoll mark. 12. in sports, a) the starting line of a race. b) the jack in the game of bowls. v.t. 1. to put or make a mark or marks on. 2. to identify or designate by or as by a mark or marks: as, his abilities marked him for success. 3. to trace, make, or produce by or as by marks; draw, write, etc. 4. to show or indicate by a mark or marks. 5. to show plainly; manifest; make clear or perceptible: as, her smile marked her happiness. 6. to distinguish; set off; characterize: as, great scientific discoveries marked the 19th century. 7. to observe; note; pay attention to; take notice of; heed: as, mark my words. 8. to give a grade or grades to; rate: as, the teacher marked the examination papers. 9. to put price tags on (merchandise). 10. to keep (score, etc.); record. v.i. 1. to make a mark or marks. 2. to observe; take note. 3. in games, to keep score.—SYN. see sign.
To mark is to scar. I mark the page with my writing. I mark the earth with my footprint. Life has marked me, left me covered with reminders of growth and grief. I have scars that begin in my scalp and extend to the arch of my foot. If my lover is observant, he’ll note each scar, trace its comma or caret with his breath, his tongue, draw from me its story. I will rise up with each stroke, let him unfold my origami muscles, wail forth my love cry as I launch into flight.
tar·ant·ism (ˈtarənˌtizəm), n. [It., tarantiscmo < Taranto, Italy: so called because formerly epidemic in the vicinity of Taranto: popularly associated with the tarantula, by whose bite it was said to be caused; cf. TARANTULA, TARENTELLA], a nervous disease characterized by hysteria and a mania for dancing, especially as prevalent in southern Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries; also spelled tarentism.
Siena. 1995. I was on my first overseas research trip, preparing to do an intensive study of Italian and, I hoped, find time to get into the archives and start the initial research for my dissertation.
I had left behind my four-year-old daughter and her father, and as part of my studies, I was living with an elderly, irascible woman who was furious with me for a number of reasons, chief among them being that I didn’t speak any Italian and so wasn’t yet able to communicate with her.
When I had signed up for this particular intensive study, I had requested living with a family. It was what I had done in France in 1984, when, in ten weeks of living with a family with three children, plus attending six hours per day of language instruction, I had returned to the United States completely fluent in French. I had hoped for the same thing in Italy, but it was clear in the first twelve hours after arrival that I had been mismatched with my host family. For one thing, it wasn’t a family. It was just her, and she bullied me. It started when I didn’t finish everything on my dinner plate. She wasn’t the stereotype of the Italian mother who insists to her kids, “eat, eat!” she seemed more like the strega from Hansel and Gretel who wanted me to eat so that she might fatten me up, and eat me, I was convinced.
It didn’t help that I missed my child. I had never spent more than a week separated from her, and as I cried myself to sleep the first of sixty days that I was set to stay, in place of my daughter, I had brought along my old nemesis, panic.
Panic. Which wouldn’t let me sit still. Panic. Which caused me to walk and walk and walk from the outer hilltop where I was staying down into Siena’s ancient walls and to walk and walk without stopping for hours on end. I was afraid that if I sat I would die. If you’ve never suffered from a panic attack, imagine those dreams where you are in the middle of the road, a truck bearing down on you, and you cannot move. Panic, the leavings of our primordial brain, where the fight-of-flight instinct saved us when confronted by saber-toothed tigers and other creatures that wanted to eat us. Panic chased me through the streets of Siena, and kept me walking from dawn until dark.
The old woman would shout at me for having been gone all day, but how to explain to her that I had been bitten by this mania, this hysteria, for which I had no name and no idea how to cure myself of. I was afraid to go to an Italian emergency room for fear that they would lock me away in a psych ward.
And so, one pre-dawn morning, after a sleepless night, I dragged my belongings to a busstop, to the train station, and to the airport at Pisa, where I begged airline officials to let me change my ticket and go home.
I have since returned to Italy, and love it. But I have never forgotten its first bite.
hol·mic (hōlˈmĭk), adj. of or containing trivalent holmium.
[hol·mi·um (hōl´me-um), n. a metallic chemical element of the rare-earth group: symbol: Ho; at. wt., 164.94; at. no., 67.]
While it is an adjective that refers to the element holmium, I find that I use such adjectives sparingly in my prose. I once wrote a blog post that compared the reflection that came off sub-zero snow as reminding me of cobalt, I cannot think of a time that I have written something elemental.
But elemental leads me to elementary, and elementary leads me to Holmes. Sherlock Holmes, who, one could argue, has given rise to all manner of Holmic studies.
In high school, I loved chemistry, although I loathed the study of all other sciences. But chemistry was a series of puzzles; it was about balance and about figuring out what happened when you combined two elements to see if, placed together, they might not form something remarkable.
And puzzles. Well, that’s what Holmes solves, right? He begins with a clue and, before you know it, has inferred and deduced, and induced confessions from those he suspects.
So, from now on, perhaps I’ll refer to anything to do with Sherlock Holmes as holmic. Because it’s elemental, my dear Watson.
Lorraine Berry was ABD at Cornell when she finally figured out that she didn’t want to be an historian: she wanted to tell stories. Since quitting, she has worked in a number of places—including going back to waitressing—but currently teaches in the Professional Writing Department at SUNY Cortland. Her work can most often be found in Salon.com or at TalkingWriting.com. She lives with her partner, Rob, and is raising two daughters. Her memoir in manuscript, “Word Lovers,” has been optioned for film. When not writing, Lorraine hikes the woods of the Finger Lakes with her two dogs.