Wednesday, October 21, 2009

`Know the Copies'

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.


Jim Murdoch said...

No, I'm like you, I delight in the discovery of a new word even one I might never find a use for although sometimes a word is so good that you have to make room for it. I gave the protagonist in my third novel wind so that I'd have an excuse to use the word 'borborygmi' or some variant thereof. Actually the sentence reads: 'Jim’s stomach gurgled borborygmically something that sounded not unlike, “Uh, oh.”'

What amazes me is for all the words we have and for all the words that have fallen into disuse there are still so many things for which there is no word. A few years ago my daughter bought me a copy of The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams which contains made-up words for all those instances that the world's dictionaries have neglected. You can find a full list here.

Nige said...

As a boy leaning piano, I used to play a little piece by C.P.E. Bach called Solfegietto. Diminutive of Solfeggio presumably - a lovely word.