Saturday, October 15, 2016

"One Word": writers choose the word they love [or loathe]

Humorist Roy Blount Jr. has noted that, unlike the Eskimo, people in the south have just one word for snow. I would add that our descriptive enhancements for that one simple word, however, extend to a multitude of expletive adjectives which are many, regional, and colorful. Most of them are also deleted in professional weather reports but we all know those adjectives are there.

I've heard most of these adjectives. The least offensive word I have heard describing a southern snowfall has been "interesting." This was used by a northern friend, who didn't want to offend any delicate sensibilities among those of us he imagined were unexpectedly missing our mint-julep-on-the-porch routine in January.

The blog at Dog Ear's Visual Thesaurus have been running excerpts from the anthology entitled One Word: Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe, edited by Molly McQuade (Sarabande Books). She had the simple idea: ask writers the question, "What one word means the most to you, and why?" Here's part of a reply by Jayson Iwen. Professor Iwen teaches at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio; the word he chose is "interesting."

I've been keeping an eye on this word for years now, conducting a stake-out in a van across the street from where it lives. I hate the word in writing, yet savor it in speech. In writing it's merely a placeholder for better words, while in speech it's damning praise of a sublime order. Interesting is its own antonym, its own shadowy other.

But that's not exactly why I'm watching it. That's not why I'm wary of uttering the word. I'm suspicious of the root that feeds it. "Interesting" entered common usage in the century that birthed modern capitalism. In its first appearance in print the word was explicitly linked to that economic context: "... that Passion which is esteem'd peculiarly interesting; as having for its Aim the Possession of Wealth" (Shaftesbury, 1711). Not surprisingly, viewed from this new old angle, contemporary definitions of the word leap to attention and assume the stance of marketing terminology: "adapted to excite interest; having the qualities which rouse curiosity, engage attention, or appeal to the emotions" (OED).

In short, since detecting capitalist ideology in this most unassuming and pervasive of words, I've begun to worry it's inside every word, though its outline may only be visible in those that poorly conceal it, like sheets draped over ill intents. ... This is the kind of unconscious logic I'm afraid might be firing through dark channels of my brain whenever I speak.

I fear this because many days I feel finite. I feel spendable. I see my window into existence shrinking and the objects of my attention looming in that diminishing frame. They're either becoming my world or they're blocking my view of it. They add value to my life or they rub my face in my own inevitable end. I realize, however, that this is not a truth. It's belief. And, though belief is both stronger and more dangerous than truth, it is, thankfully, alterable. ...

When I say "interesting" now, I ask myself, "Exactly what is it you think will repay you with interest?" And the answer is usually as inevitable as it is startling. So I sit here, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for it to appear. Because it would feel so good to put it away forever. Go ahead, I say to myself. Say it.

Jayson Iwen has published Six Trips in Two Directions (Emergency Press, 2006) and A Momentary Jokebook (Cleveland State University, 2008). A third, Gnarly Wounds, is under consideration.

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