©2016 By Bob Litton
There were periods in my life when I earned a living employing words. And I have read many more words through a lifetime, a lot of which I never have used in my own compositions. I had to look too many of them up in a dictionary or guess their meanings from the contexts; one such term is “fascicle”, which I came upon yesterday in a book about the poems disguised as prose in Emily Dickinson’s letters. That word was used in this sentence: “The poem follows a progression found in some of Dickinson’s other nature poems of the fascicle years: first a simple description of nature and then, in a later stanza, the leap to the transcendental level.” And that is followed by an ambiguous use of the word transitive in one of her briefer poems:
That a pansy is transitive,
is its only pang.
This, precluding that,
is indeed divine.
Like most English words, the above two terms have more than one meaning. Looking them both up in my dictionary, I inferred that fascicle, as intended by the critic, refers to Dickinson’s habit of bundling several poems together, punching a couple of holes through the pages, and running strings through them—making her own books; for, one of the meanings of fascicle is “one of the divisions of a book published in parts.”
As for transitive, I sensed while reading Emily’s poem that she was using that word in the same sense I would have used transitory or transient, meaning “of brief duration/temporary.” I wondered if her choice had been dictated by a concern for meter and connotation, since transitory contains one syllable more than transitive, and transient summons an image of physical movement, particularly of hoboes, as much as it does of time passing. That poem, a virtual brain-teaser, is difficult enough in its composition and content without adding ambiguous acceptation to the puzzle.
It is not just in academic and poetical works that I find words that halt my reading pace. Recently I was escape-reading in an omnibus volume of Nero Wolfe novels and novellas by Rex Stout. Twice in a single day up popped a word that I had seen before, but long ago, and I could not recall its exact meaning. No dictionary was at hand. I thought I would remember the word and look it up later; I kept on reading; I didn’t remember the word. Such occurrences have happened too many times.
Before I leave Rex Stout’s works, I want to mention an example of how Stout never passed up an opportunity, even in his Nero Wolfe novels, to castigate organizations such as the FBI and even the G. & C. Merriam Company, publisher of Webster’s New International Dictionary, whenever they breached his principles. The first chapter of Gambit (1962) opens with a scene of Wolfe sitting in front of his fireplace, tearing out pages of the new dictionary, and tossing them into the fire. He explains his activity to a new client, who has just entered the room, thus:
‘Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”
She did fine, She said simply, “No.”
“This book says you may. Pfui. I prefer not to interrupt this auto-da-fe. You wish
to consult me?”
I agree with Nero Wolfe’s, i.e. Rex Stout’s, judgment about infer and imply absolutely.
Another problem I have with words, and even proper names, is that I often forget the most common ones — not just the rarely used or more difficult ones — the frequently used ones. And worse still, often I have thought of the word I needed within the previous hour. Naturally, this problem is directly related to my transformation into an old man. If I were not a compulsive writer, perhaps such a weakness would not be as exasperating as it is; but when I have to pause in my typing several minutes — perhaps even pull up an Internet dictionary or call a friend — to recover the desired word, well, that’s just maddening.
And that is one of the reasons I don’t produce as much for this blog as I would like.