The comfort of exactness

2008-12-17 00:00

Recently I dived into our pool in Hilton and came up yelling. It didn’t occur to me that there should be a word for that shock of icy water but there is.

Curglaff: Scottish dialect for “the shock felt in bathing, when one first plunges into the cold water”. It’s the precision of the word I love. In these times of swirling uncertainty there’s something very comforting about exactness. And the book I found it in, From Afterwit to Zemblanity, is very exact, comprising a list of no more than “100 endangered words”.

Only 100? English, after all, offers a selection of over 220 000 to choose from. If this seems like a curious publishing project, you’re right. Explaining his motivation in putting it together, its creator, Simon

Hertnon, writes that he thought it might be fun to assemble “a dream team of rare lexical gems”.

A Kiwi writer, philosopher and lover of words, he explains how he chose these stars.

“When a word perfectly captures a human truth, humans respond to it in the same way they respond to a beautiful melody. They smile. They nod their heads. They tell others of their discovery.”

Hertnon’s delight is infectious. With each entry he provides his own entertaining motivation for its inclusion. The word “velleity” (“volition in its weakest form”) gets the thumbs up for expressing “when we give just a little damn, like the velleitous concern for air quality and global warming displayed by the drivers of gas-guzzling, smoke-belching SUVs”.

Some words are so apt you wonder why they aren’t in wider use, like “afterwit” or “know-ledge which comes too late”. Think: that witty remark that only comes to you as you’re heading for bed.

Some seem particularly relevant in our country now, like “plutomania” — “the frenzied pursuit of wealth” — or a word that seems particularly appropriate for the African National Congress’s post-Polokwane woes: “schlimmbesserung”, or “an improvement that makes things worse”. Worrying about all this, on top of financial concerns and normal everyday life, could lead to “omnistrain” or “the stress of trying to cope with everything at once”.

For some it’s been too much and in the last 18 months or so legions of South Africans have fled for less challenging shores. No doubt many of them are now contemplating the northern hemisphere winter and feeling nostalgic about that smell that expats love so much, “a pleasant distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm dry weather”. They might be comforted to know that there’s a word for that aroma: “petrichor”, which Hertnon accompanies with a pithy aside on memory and the vocabulary of smell.

The last word in the book — “zemblanity” — is also the youngest, coined in the late 20th century by writer William Boyd. It means the opposite of serendipity, or “the inevitable discovery of what we would rather not know” — like the amount on your pay cheque each month. Hertnon’s reason for including it is partly a reminder that there’s nothing stopping any of us from coining a word.

Which brings us to our country and the truths that delight and trouble us yet lie unarticulated like undiscovered treasures on a beach. Words connect us and can make us feel less lonely. Perhaps it’s time we came up with a few more words of our own that will make us laugh and smile and want to talk to each other.

• From Afterwit to Zemblanity: 100 Endangered Words Brought to Life by Simon Hertnon is published by New Holland publishers.

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