When my third grade teacher, Mrs. Broadhurst, showed me a thesaurus for the first time, I was thrilled. I started peppering book reports with words like assuage and recondite. Which word was the right one? Which would say just the thing I needed it to say? I used to stare at a leaf or a wall as the day faded and ask myself, what color is it now? And moments later – now? What pigments would I mix to get it to look like that? What word says what color that is? And when darkness took away all color, there were sounds – the rustle of sheets, a gurgle deep in the belly of the house. A distant car outside, someone awake going where, why, at ten thirty, eleven thirty, twelve thirty at night? There were words somewhere to say what was happening at any moment any place in the world.
I am still enchanted with words. Words hold ideas; they contain ways of perceiving, ways of thinking. I often learn new words or new meanings for words when I teach. A couple years ago, I taught at a high school where the kids used the word “salt” the way we used to say “psych” (“sike” for the orthographically challenged), “burn” or “face” when I was their age. I assume it comes from the phrase “to rub salt in the wound,” to add insult to injury. Their principal actually banned the term – along with, according to my students, the use of any other condiments as insults.
Working on The Saltwater Twin has also introduced me to some very satisfying words (and phrases) borrowed from other tongues. Below are a few of my favorites.
L’appel du vide – the call of the void
I discovered this term while working on a chapter called “Suicide Dog and Other Savage Beasts.” I was trying to figure out why I get creeped out on cliffs or bridges, why I feel as though I might suddenly fling myself into the abyss. There’s a disconcerting tug to jerk the wheel left on the highway, lean out the open window. A little voice whispers, do it, don’t think, do it. Turns out, the feeling is not uncommon. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re suicidal either. In French they call it l’appel du vide, the call of the void. The curious can read more about it here.
Geworfenheit – thrownness
“The philosopher Martin Heidegger coined the term Geworfenheit, ‘thrownness,’ to describe the idea that human beings are thrown into existence without having chosen it. Our Being-in-the-world is a ‘thrownness’. Having been thrown, we seek to create meaning. But we have this anxiety that there’s really no purpose, nothing at the core of our existence.” This is from a chapter of The Saltwater Twin called “We Got Spirit!” in which I recount the sad tale of my failed 7th grade attempt to become a cheerleader and also mull over how to be happy.
Sitzfleich – stick-to-it-iveness
I can’t remember where I first heard this term. But I think of it every time I sit down to write.
“Sitzfleisch (from sitzen (to sit) + Fleisch (flesh). Earliest documented use: Before 1930) is a fancy term for what’s commonly known as chair glue: the ability to sit still and get through the task at hand. It’s often the difference between, for example, an aspiring writer and a writer.”
Hoʻoponopono – literally translated, to make right or bring into balance
Ho’oponopono is a traditional Hawaiian practice of working with families and other groups to right wrongs and cultivate forgiveness. Here is an interesting article about it from the Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal.
I can’t remember where I stumbled across ho’oponopono either. But it makes me want to learn Hawaiian, which is closely related to other Polynesian languages, such as Tahitian and Māori, and which UNESCO ranks as a critically endangered language. Also it makes me want to visit Hawaii. Some exploration of ho’oponopono will likely wind up in the final chapter of The Saltwater Twin, which is tentatively titled “The Teacup Is Already Broken” and which investigates letting go.
Anybody have a favorite word or phrase – American slang, French, German, Hawaiian or otherwise? Comment!