A true story recollected.
I used to live beside the Sanagawa River in Aichi Prefecture. I remember getting home one day and feeling the urge to watch TV.
On one show a crew was embedded with a family whose little boy of 5 or so was afflicted with a rare disease of the heart. He was an enthusiastic little monster with a raucous voice that belied his size, and came across in edited intervals a reveller in bombastic noise.
A doctor gave grim details I couldn’t follow and my girlfriend explained that it was his heart. They didn’t fully understand the problem but knew it was getting worse. The boy was in for many tests and learned patience in the company of large hospital apparatus.
And then: the family was relaxing at home when the boy clicked. This was not reality TV but a documentary, and he’d turned off.
Others appeared on camera. I think they knew this could happen because a doctor and a nurse appeared and began working on him, checking his responses and trying to revive him as his mother reacted with a voice like a need rubbed raw.
I must have been frozen with a spoon or a drink midair; I don’t remember how long they tried to get him back. When it was clear he was dead there was a long draw like the pull of a bellows out of which the mother darted bearing silver scissors with that timing that fits between moments.
A fear of something rash drove everyone who could move in the shock to hold her fast, but grief’s abandon twisted her free of the man with the boom mic and past the doctor to the boy’s side where she cut a lock of his hair, and clutching it she gave way to a sound that animals know, a retching wailing breath of loss of love.
The scene dissolved and cut to a full year after. The boy’s younger sister, I think it was, and his mother and father were walking in a kind of procession with people from their town. They smiled, and it was meant to show levity and the fruit of time’s dressing. But for me it fell on a numb heart, and we turned the TV off and sat quietly.
I’ve always enjoyed reading words that are new to me. From a young age I felt that the way I first encountered a word would shape my use of it going forward. I’ve come to think of words as creatures, animals that need to be viewed and experienced in the wild to really get a sense of them. This means the dictionary is a zoo.
When in your travels you meet a new word, it’s in the province of the writer who employed it, and it functions within and relates to a much broader whole. The choice of any word above another is evidence of a writer’s sensibility; it is the grain of their tone.
Reading a scene (perhaps set at night, in a thicket), all the description, pace and existing impressions of the characters – everything – is reverberating, operating, negotiating, being drawn across strings and sounding chords. Suddenly there it is: the giant squid in the depths, a snow leopard, moonlight on antlers — a new word. Although unknown, it inhabits a territory of meaning, a length of time in the sustained tone.
Viewing a word in rich context steeps it in meaning. Like sonar, the information you already have fleshes out the form of the new word, gives it shade and tone. And then there’s the sound it makes. We all know that words can crackle and slide, bounce and cut. Merde conjures shit; pompous is best when sprayed. The sound is part of your first impression of a word, even before you “know what it means.” Seeing it artfully employed, a weight-bearing beam within the structure, a sense is gained that cannot be gleaned from a dictionary, where words are in captivity.
Of course, we don’t always have this luxury. There will always be times when we’ve got to look up a word for work or study. But whenever possible, I relish having new words slowly revealed through repeated encounters in the wild.