I continue to write in my manuscript journal as I read, noting unfamiliar words and writing down their definitions. Instead of feeling that there is a shortcoming in my knowledge, I marvel instead at the richness of language. I feel rewarded that I still encounter new words even after a lifetime of obsessive reading, studying, writing, and reflecting on literature. The act of exploring newfound words, to paraphrase Hemingway’s meditation on hunger in A Moveable Feast, is good discipline.
Recently I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, about her exploration of and decision to write in Italian. “I acquire my vocabulary day by day,” she writes, “word by word.” Isn’t that true of us all? Vocabulary isn’t meted out in early life in a finite supply; its acquisition is a lifelong process, and like all forms of knowledge or wealth, some of us acquire more than others.
“I’m constantly hunting for words,” Lahiri writes. “At the end of the day the basket is heavy, overflowing. I feel loaded down, wealthy, in high spirits. My words seem more valuable more than money. I am like a beggar who finds a pile of gold, a bag of jewels.”
So we all gather words, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
From Lahiri I have gathered, among others:
- Diaphanous: of such fine texture as to be transparent or translucent; characterized by delicacy of form; vague or insubstantial
- Verisimilitude: the quality of appearing to be true or real
- Lapidary: one who cuts, polishes, or engraves gems; of or relating to precious stones or working with them; a deal in precious or semiprecious stones; engraved in stone; marked by conciseness, precision, or refinement of expression
Obviously, we should all strive to write lapidary prose: concise, precise, refined. I’ve been working toward that ideal since even before my days as an undergraduate, since I was a child, since the time, not even remembered, when I first marveled at the majesty and movement of the written word. Without even knowing there was a word for it, I wrote for years in inchoate verisimilitude: hoping all my words were true and real. Perhaps, in continuing to record unfamiliar words in my written journals, I reveal that I have not yet mastered the English language. Perhaps true mastery–or at least the kind of mastery to which I aspire–isn’t even possible. But I intend to find out.