I learned a new word on Tuesday, one I feel foolish not having known long ago. My benefactor was a grade-school music teacher who wrote it on the blackboard: solfège (minus the accent grave). It sounded French but I could make no sense of it until he added do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti and do in the traditional staircase arrangement and sang the ascending and descending tones of the scale.
Why is learning a new word, in particular one referring to a long-familiar object or concept, so satisfying? It fills a hole in the world or at least in my understanding of the world. I’m tidy and admire precision. I like nuance and have a neurotic urge to express myself with concision. The rest is persiflage, as Mencken might put it. The man who wrote the dictionary put it like this in The Idler #70 (August 18, 1759):
“Difference of thoughts will produce difference of language. He that thinks with more extent than another, will want words of a larger meaning; he that thinks with more subtilty will seek for terms of more nice discrimination; and where is the wonder, since words are but the images of things, that he who never knew the original should not know the copies?”
I flatter myself to think I think “with more subtilty” than some others. To “know the copies” is not to settle for some smeary Platonic carbon copy. I would rather say solfège than sing you a scale. The music teacher, by the way, possessed an excellent baritone.