When three closely-related things happen one right after another, I start looking for meaning.
#1: My friend Anne Bruce told me I should read this book. The Dictionary of Lost Words, a combination of fact and historical fiction, tells the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) came into being. The narrator is a child named Esme whose mother has died and whose father is an editor for the OED. Esme grows up in the Scriptorium (the Scrippy, as they called it), surrounded by “slips” – the small cards on which words being considered for entry in the OED were written by the thousands of ordinary people who sent them in (some volunteers, like Edith Thompson and her sister Elizabeth, contributed over 15,000 words).
As Esme grows up she begins to notice how many words are being left out of the dictionary, words in common use but not written down because the people who used them weren’t writers or readers, and particularly, words used by women. So she sets out to collect them – this novel is the story of that quest.
#2: Right in the middle of this immersion in the England of over a century ago, my friend Ajay Zaveri sent me a link to an essay by Austin Kleon. I was curious about this guy because I had used some of his quotes in our 2015 calendar but had never tracked him down to learn more about him. The article Ajay shared – A Library of Words – was an uncanny riff on The Dictionary of Lost Words and took me even further back in time – to the mid-1800s.
Kleon’s essay is about the often maligned Roget’s Thesaurus, famously overused by teenagers and many adult writers who just want to sound important and as if they have a huge vocabulary. In fact, Peter Mark Roget was a genius and his masterpiece is a beautiful and astonishing celebration of the many, many different words we have in the treasure house of the English language.
A dictionary does that too, but with a difference.
Kleon quotes Roget: “The purpose of an ordinary Dictionary is to simply explain the meaning of the words.” Kleon goes on to explain: “After you look up the word, you are given the idea the word is supposed to convey. The Thesaurus is supposed to work in the opposite direction: you start with an idea, and then you find the words to express it.”
I’ve always loved the thesaurus. Getting exactly the right word for what one wants to convey is such a satisfying feeling, like the click of a well-made jigsaw puzzle piece snapping into its correct spot – not only is the shape right, but the colors blend and the lines match and the whole picture emerges as it was meant to. And for those frequent occasions when you have an idea or a thought but not the words to express it, the thesaurus, unlike the dictionary, can help you think it through: is it nostalgia or remembrance or longing? Or perhaps yearning? They’re all different. and the thesaurus allows you to test each one against what you are trying to express and see if it clicks into place.
#3: My podcast provider often makes suggestions too. Usually it’s not as insightful as Anne or Ajay, but this one was spot on. Ten Percent Happier turned out to be clever and entertaining show about meditation, mindfulness and how to achieve happiness and peace. I listened to a few episodes, but the one I really liked was an interview with Brene Brown, that rock star of vulnerability, shame and emotional intelligence.
Brown speaks eloquently about the paucity of our vocabulary for describing emotions. According to her, most people are only able to accurately identify three feelings: “happy, sad and pissed off.” When our language is that limited, it’s not surprising that our responses are too. If anything that makes us unhappy is either annoying or sad, how do we even begin to process the difference between grief and disappointment? Or between envy and jealousy? What about joy and contentment? The more precisely we can differentiate, the better placed we will be to cultivate more of what we want and less of what we don’t.
The confluence is clear: when we don’t value and record everybody‘s words, our language degrades and coarsens. With fewer words at our command, we can’t even identify deeper, more complex emotions, let alone experience them fully. When only some stories matter and some vocabularies are in common use, we know little about people not like us. We rely on increasingly shallow sources to say what we think we mean and even though we are further and further apart, we’ve all begun to sound the same.
And the meaning? We are less capable of compassion, empathy and connection but we can’t really experience joy either. Without stories to help us imagine worlds not our own, we lack the language to speak of all that is going on in the world and we can’t identify either with those suffering or those celebrating. We diminish our own worlds and impoverish ourselves.
Refugees fleeing terror, climate change and poverty have nothing to do with us but we can’t identify with a prosperous gay couple getting married either. We’re suspicious about that disabled woman who’s having a baby and we wish that homeless person wouldn’t keep making us feel so guilty.
My advice? Get a library card. Read stories. Browse the thesaurus and get lost in the OED. Expand your vocabulary and open your windows to the world. It’s all out there waiting.