When I was a child and I would read a word in a book that I was unfamiliar with, I would go and ask my mother what that word meant. At first, when I was really young, she would tell me it’s definition. But when I got a little older, she told me to go look the word’s meaning up in a dictionary. I was enthralled that I could go to our shelf, pull down two volumes from our Encyclopedia Britannica set that were dictionaries and look up so many new and exciting words. Yes, I was one of those weird kids who actually loved reading the words and definitions that were found between its pages. And, unlike so many of my peers in school, I didn’t go to dictionaries just to find the “dirty” words and snicker.
Some of my favorite children’s books were the best at introducing me to new words.
It started with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Sendak’s use of the word rumpus. I learned that rumpus was “a usually noisy commotion or ruckus.” It was thrilling to me to declare, like Max, “Let the wild rumpus start!”
Then there was one of my favorite childhood poets, Edward Lear. His most famous work “The Owl and the Pussycat” introduced me to the word runcible, as in “they ate with a runcible spoon.” I was delighted to find out that Lear had simply made this word up (Even more thrilling than a wild rumpus was that one could simply make up words). Edward Lear loved his new word so much that he used this adjective to not only describe the spoon, but also a cat, a hat, a wall and a goose. The word came to mean “silly.” Another writer who delighted in making up nonsense words to the delight of children was Roald Dahl whizzpopper).
Lewis Carroll enjoyed blending existing words to form new ones as what he called “portmanteau words.” One sees this usage of words in his poems “The Jabberwocky” or “The Hunting of the Snark.” Frumious was just such a word formulated in the imaginative mind of Carroll by combining fuming and furious.
Dr. Seuss was, of course, a master of made-up words and language.
Beatrix Potter introduced me to the word soporific in her book The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and my mother explained that it meant that something had the effect of making one sleepy.
A Wrinkle in Time introduced me to the world of science and the concept of a tesseract. The spider Charlotte first made me aware of the word radiant when she described Wilbur that way in Charlotte’s Web. The Little Prince was where I first encountered the baobab tree.
Just as I longed to go to Narnia (Lewis taught me the word wardrobe), I also longed to visit Dictionopolis from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Dictionopolis, the kingdom of words, where King Azaz decreed a law that words were more important than numbers. As someone who has always struggled with math, I’m with King Azaz. This was the land where the protagonist, Milo, learns to use words and times wisely.
From elementary school on, I was a logophile (from the Greek logos for “word, reason” and philos for “dear, friendly”). It never once abated. I adored words. If I grew bored, particularly during the winter months when I couldn’t go exploring the woods, I would take down a dictionary and simply begin reading it. I thought I was the only one, but then, years later, I found out that David Bowie did as well. “Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary?” he once asked someone, “When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” Now I’m sure there was some tongue-in-cheek playfulness about that statement, but I still found Bowie a comrade.
As I have gotten older, I continue to love new words, particularly if they are related to the natural environment around me. One of my newer favorites is a Japanese word Komorebi. Komorebi means “the sunlight filtering through the leaves or trees.” The fact that there is a word for that is magical to me because now I can use it whenever I see light coming through the leaves of trees. There is something transcendental about the light coming through the leaves and can fill me with a sense of awe. This was especially true during the last eclipse. Komorebi also describe that effect that happened after the solar eclipse, where I was more fascinated by the light playing on our patio than the eclipse itself.
I love language that reads like poetry or makes the world more poetic and somehow names that which was previously ineffable.
Komorebi is what Dylan Thomas called “windfall light” in his poem “Fern Hil” when he writes “Down the rivers of windfall light.” Like myself and Thomas, C.S. Lewis was someone who loved Komorebi and he described them as “shafts of delicious sunlight” or “Godlight.”
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.” And he’s right. Words cannot touch the absolute truth but they can, however, guide us there. When we give something a name, we give it meaning. As Robin Wall Kimmerer wisely said, “With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”
And they have. Words have taught me to see. They have opened me up to being able to call something a specific name instead of just a bird (a Brown-headed nuthatch – so much more wonderful than just saying “bird”) or just a plant (Eastern Blue Star is far more poetic) or just a tree (Carolina Silverbell).
I, like Anne of Green Gables, understand the value of naming a place(the White Way of Delight or the Lake of Shining Waters). Like one of my favorite fictional characters, I agree with her assessment of in this passage of the book:
“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about?” she asks Matthew on their first drive to Green Gables. “It’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”
Words help give us that scope of imagination for discovery, for being able to name something we once could not name. I can use the German term Waldeinsamkeit to describe “a feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and having a connection to nature.” Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote an entire poem about this.
So I will continue to take the dictionary down, even when I’m not bored, just to open it randomly and find new words. It not only expands my vocabulary and my mind, but my world as well.