One Word: Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe
publication date: 2010/10/01
trim: 9 x 6
price (paper): $16.95
ISBN 13 (paper): 978-1-932511-69-7
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by Joel Brouwer
A selects one but implies many, and so casts a pall of anxiety over its noun. “I’m not sure I want a relationship,” she says, and immediately I imagine her turning the pages of a gigantic catalog of relationships, debating which, if any, she might want.
A is a wager, a leap of faith, “a joyous shot at how things ought to be,” as Philip Larkin wrote in his poem “Home Is So Sad.” “Sad” because the shot, Larkin’s quick to remind us, so often falls wide. But A doesn’t know that. It can’t because at the moment a joyous shot becomes the shot that fell wide, A’s already moved on.
A’s irrepressible. A never looks back.
A opens a restaurant, marries a sweetheart, places a bid, agrees to an experimental treatment. It’s true that A never sticks around to see how the roll of the dice comes out, and maybe that makes A irresponsible, but at least A takes a crack at it. Say what you will, but A’s an optimist.
After A has seduced, eliminated, burned, and run over them, you try to explain to A that no, those were not a lover, job, house, and dog; they were your lover, job, house, and dog. A affects contrition but really has no idea what you’re talking about.
A hypothesizes and speculates, enjoys abstractions, prefers conjecture to conclusion. Nothing perplexes A more than hearing someone say, “We’ve got to find an answer!” “Find one?” thinks A. “There are billions of them all around you!”
A offers up its noun for our consideration, evaluation, and possible adoption or acquisition. A’s an auctioneer.
In T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the intensely conflicted title character asks himself a lot of questions, among them “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” and “Do I dare to eat a peach?”
It seems like disturbing the universe should be a far more daring and difficult challenge than eating a peach. But in fact the first question is easier to answer than the second, because it permits only two possible answers, yes or no. The problem of the peach, because it is burdened with the indefinite article, is more complicated. Before he could begin to solve it, Prufrock would first have to feel confident that he’d chosen—from amongst all the peaches which have existed, presently exist, and will or might exist in the future—the correct peach to dare to eat. From the correct branch, tree, orchard, and planet, on the correct day at the correct hour by the correct hand, and so forth.
We shouldn’t be surprised if in the end Prufrock finds it easier to disturb the universe than to eat a peach. The universe has been chosen for him. The universe is a sitting duck. But he’ll never have the nerve to eat a peach.
Brisk and efficient, A arrives early, in advance of its master the complacent noun, to throw open a window, light a lamp, prepare the throne where the noun will settle its bulk. A exists to serve. A’s meaningless without its master.
But they both know who really runs the household.
One Word is a rich and varied collection of meditations on words—from the simplest (a and or) to the rarest (kankedort, with one known occurrence) and from the most basic (filthy) to the most ornately elaborate (floccinaucinihipilification)—where we encounter the many ways that language and human events intersect. In each case, the writer has chosen, to borrow from Maureen N. McLane’s essay on kankedort, an “exceptional word”, a word that has “lodged itself like a mystery, a word that gathered around it associations [both] personal and ramifying…” Not surprisingly, we encounter discussions of words and meanings, but also stories of relationships and of the intimate and powerful forces that shape lives. Maggie Hivnor’s words about Yeats’ use of half-light seem apt for this collection as well: “When poets use a word as well as that, they leave a trace of meaning on it, a fingerprint—or sheen: a new layer of lacquer, a warmth, like the time-worn glow on the newel-post of an old banister, touched by generations.” Readers of this collection too will find that the words profiled here have a new trace of meaning, a warmth, and a time-worn glow.
—John Morse, Publisher of Merriam-Webster, Inc.
At last! A dictionary for people who are words! From the eight pages that define "A" ("A never looks back") to the concluding two pages of "Wrong" ("Two wrongs only make a wrong wronger."), what we have here is a smorgasbord of sentience, a collision of serendipity and scholarship. This is a book at play in the fields of meaning. When More's Utopia is realized, One Word will be the vocabulary list for the SATs. (Except: there will be no SATs!)
This is a funny and sharp and insightful and slightly crazy book about how writers see words and their importance. Anyone who loves writing - and who values the value of a word - will enjoy this collection.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at One Word Unknowable topsoil, wrong pants, personal. Invisible riff, interesting. Fact: very bitchin', felt sweet!
—Katharine Weber, author of True Confections, Triangle, etc.