Language, on and off Holiday


Which of the following would best be described as an hiatus?

Which of the following would most likely be considered a furlough?

For extra money, an hour or two most days, I pose variations of these questions over and over. Each of them, along with its set of possible answers, goes into the database of an on-line vocabulary-building tool. It's a pretty straightforward formula, the interrogative of multiple choice. However, what strikes me with each variation is the tense in which it must be formed: would be most likely to, would best be described as, would most likely. Always the conditional – to signal, I suppose, that these are all hypothetical instances – and thus the words here deployed are equivalent to blanks in a loaded gun: they make the same sound but do not pierce us in any way.

And so I compose these questions, one after another, ten to fifteen an hour, careful to insert the conditional, as if I were setting up a practice shooting range, a multiple choice of clay pigeons and cardboard targets. I do wonder, though, how effective this sort of vocabulary building will be for its subscribers. (I have no concrete research before me, but I suspect that learning vocabulary outside of its natural habitat1 is somewhat analogous to swallowing vitamin pills instead of eating actual vegetables: less is absorbed.) But to be perfectly candid, I'm not so much concerned about the improved verbal scores of these potential subscribers as I am just a bit saddened each time I confine another word to a purely hypothetical existence.

“Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday,” Wittgenstein so quaintly tells us in his Philosophical Investigations. He was getting at how difficult it is to actually learn much at all about words and their attendant conventions once you've removed them from the everday speech and printed page that is their office – once you're fanning an isolated word with the palm front of philosophical analysis.2 And certainly the practice shooting range of this vocabulary-building tool is just such a holiday setting. Being presented with a cursory definition of a word, its part of speech, and then asked to identify the most plausible instantiation of it in a lineup of four, is hardly akin to encountering it under workaday circumstances. But this, of course, is true of any number of tools and programs aimed at improving one's vocabulary. What really underscores the disparity between holiday and workaday, it seems, is the use here of the conditional tense – that single block of would – that confines each word to something like a cryogenic chamber of unreality.3

Which of the following would most likely be considered a sabbatical?

Because, you see, what is never explicitly stated in these questions, but what's undeniably understood, is the condition for using the vocabulary word in question – the condition, of course, being actuality. If this weren't a practice shooting range; if you were ever to encounter these words in their natural habitat – each question implicitly (hauntingly) begins. The would that always follows, in the explicitly stated clause of the question, is that ghostly class of the conditional called the speculative, or counter-factual, conditional The Bedford Handbook's4 description of it gives me chills: speculative conditional sentences express unlikely, contrary-to-fact, or impossible conditions in the present or future. I.e., it is unlikely, contrary-to-fact, or even impossible that you, the type who subscribes to this kind of vocabulary-building tutelage, will ever, ever encounter these words in their natural habitat.5

Which of the following would most likely be considered a recess?

Of course, it's a testament to the general fantasticality of language that it can be employed to speak of itself on a purely hypothetical basis. But doesn't this only heighten the misfortune of never encountering the vast, vast majority6 of it in the full color spendor of its natural habitat?

I wonder about this as I build this perserve of words on holiday. Possibly, I wonder about this because I remember first hunting them in their natural habitat.

Around the age of seventeen, I became obsessed with the sheer volume of words in just this language. In his De Copia, Erasmus cautions students that it is insufficient “to have prepared an abundant supply and rich store of [fine] words unless you have them not only ready, but in sight, so that even without being sought they may come instantly to mind.” My mind throbbed a little.7 In a gorgeous (if wholly unintentional) echo of Erasmus (who is himself, he admits, echoing Quintilian), Michael Chabon describes his impression of the English language as “[an] immense treasury, packed with words from every era, every land, from the entire history of the human race.” He adds, “I just can't imagine not availing myself of as [many] of those words as I possibly can.” At age seventeen, I felt similarly. (Well, okay: I still feel similarly. Just not as obsessively.)

Equal parts enamored of language and obsessive-compulsive, my eye alit on novel words8 the way a crow is drawn to shiny objects. And I didn't just note them in passing. A true child of Erasmus, I noted them down: the words, their dictionary definitions, their sounds. All went into a spiral-bound notebook where I kept them, with possibly the same amount of excitement that certain lepidopterists have in pinning a rare fritillary to the mounting board.

It wasn't that I consulted the notebook all that often; it wasn't a supplemental dictionary. Mainly, it was just enough to know that I'd captured these words. And then, the thrill was to encounter them again, in a different habitat: punctuating a dry political article in one of my father's magazines, or actually spoken (I, a lass from the provinces, sincerely remember this thrill) by a visiting scholar my first semester at college. These words were initially sighted with some degree of mental fanfare and then would begin to surface on a more regular, less celebratory basis. Then, I would encounter them with the plain satisfaction of my own worldliness, these verbal artifacts serving as cairns and footholds in my navigation of the language.9

Gary Lutz has a better version of this story, of how he first became aware “that a word is a solid, something firm and palpable…that it exists in tactual materiality, that it has cubic bulk.” He came to this realization not from any vocabulary lists, of course, but in a way that does Wittgenstein proud: he, too, found them in the workaday landscape of actual books. Of course, the books where he found them weren't the everyday of the phone book or the issues of Look magazine he grew up with: they couldn't be. You have to search a little harder to find the rare opulences of a vocab list doing real work. But the work Lutz found them at was glorious: This was in “books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy.” These words inhabited “sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained.”10

These words – not to mention the words in Lutz's own sentences today – certainly aren't on holiday. You could say they were in hyper-drive. They are acutely, attentively, at work – striving to articulate the most acute of impressions. And so, how dreary it seems to me to encounter them – if at all – only in the sterile confines of a vocabulary-building tool.

None of which is to say that what I've written here is some kind of rallying cry: against the test prep books and into the stacks! It isn't. “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other,” another crack crafter of the sentence reminds us. Linguists even tell us that people in possession of fewer artifacts from that vast storehouse of language get along just fine. I suppose, then, what I regret is that these users can't experience the fully charged pleasure of these words on the real frontier. It is not even that there isn't something I enjoy, just a little, about setting up these clay targets and loading blanks. (I do, after all, get to handle these words.) There is just something a little melancholy about such experience limited to the conditional.


1. Just to pre-empt any deconstructively inclined nit-pickers: by “natural habitat,” I'm really just referring to any instance in which words aren't being used solely as an example of how words are, or should be, used. The Proustian sentence? Perfectly natural. The sentences modeled by Strunk and White in order to demonstrate proper enclosure of parenthetic expressions between commas? Artificial.

2. He was frustrated with the isolated and contorted positions into which philosophers too often bend words in order, supposedly, to get a better look at them. The classic example is Augustine, who described words as if they were fixed values that could thus be arranged variously in the combo platter of a sentence. This frustrated Wittgenstein.

3. Irrealis is actually what linguists call the class of grammatical moods that refer to an act or situation that is not a fact!

4. Ubiquitous enough for anyone teaching college comp (which I do), that it felt dishonest not to consult it in this instance.

5. The now syntactically virtuosic Gary Lutz vividly recalls this alienation: “I never seemed capable of importing into my sentences any of the vivid specimens from the lists I had now begun to memorize,” he writes. “My writing was dividered from the arrayed opulences in the vocabulary books. Language remained beyond me.” (Anyone who adores language animated to the point of anthropomorphism will want to read his essay called “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.”)

6. “[E]xcluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary,” but including distinct senses (like dog as both noun and verb), the people at the OED estimate the total words in the English language at somewhere around three quarters of a million. Today, the average adult vocabulary is 40,000 to 50,000 words.

7. Not that, at age seventeen, I had heard of Erasmus. But my impulse was essentially the same.

8. For the sake of authenticity, I've actually unearthed the old spiral-bound, and it reads very like a set of novice Balderdash™ cards. Among the gems are: contumely, cordate, crepitation, jeremiad, jeroboam, prandial, and divagation. Interestingly enough, I do still know and use these words.

9. “…language sets everyone the same traps; it is an immense network of easily accessible wrong turning. And so we watch one [person] after another walking down the same paths and we know in advance where they will branch off, where walk straight on without noticing the side turning, etc. etc. What I have to do then is erect signposts at all junctions where there are wrong turnings, so as to help people past the danger points.” (Wittgenstein, Culture and Values, 18e)

“A philosophical problem has the form: I don't know my way about.” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §123.

In his later years, Wittgenstein was very big in rooting understanding in the landscape of the everyday. For him, meaning inhered in use.

10. Once more, I urge you to submit to the nearly graphic pleasure of Lutz describing the behavior of words in a perfectly wrought sentence.