I love words. I love the infinite mutations of English’s 56 basic phonemes, companionable into innumerable words with numberless meanings and applications. Think of it: anything you feel, any state of being, object, action, or description you can think of is possible. Each word is a circular reflecting pool of meaning. You can use general words: broad strokes which can be applied to many things, like “good,” to express yourself. But these skirt the edge of meaning, leaving cloudy trails in the bank mud and not satisfying the spectrum of human understanding. Or you can use deep words. You can utilize specific, variegated words, with lush etymologies and prismatic definitions. You can throw away the dull, common man’s knife of language and open the opulent weapon’s cabinet of words. Words which hang on the walls, shining swords of rhetoric, ready for the day you pass a hand across their gilded hilts, raise them off their iron mounts, and bare them aloft into the battle of words.
Romanticized metaphors aside, I court new words like a kitten with a ping-pong ball. I discovered a recent beauty in a lecture ballroom, uttered into the microphone by one of Sigma Tau Delta’s featured speakers, Anne Fadiman. Her titular talk at this year’s National English Honor Society Convention entertained the mass of listening twenty-somethings. I, however, was more concerned with her vocabulary.
“Oleaginous,” she said, in reference to a famed bibliophile’s favorite bookmark: bacon. Although I, like the convention audience, found this jentacular story amusing, I was far more captivated by her word, oleaginous. The flowing cavalcade of vowels slid across my tongue as I repeated the word quietly to myself.
“Oleaginous… oleaginous… oleaginous.” I muttered, it was a Twain word. A word which needs no definition; it is so imbued with the sense of its meaning that readers just know. Oleaginous, in Ms. Fadiman’s context, means greasy or buttery. It sounds like it is, fulsome and smarmy. That makes it a Twain word, a great word. The revered American satirist after whom I named this level of quality, Mark Twain, has a way of putting it:
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
— Mark Twain
Oleaginous is the right word. During the convention, Fadiman used it to describe bacon. It took on another meaning, however, as the weekend proceeded.
Oleaginous also means unctuous, oily, and overly-ingratiating speech. I think of empty flattery, something I am always wary of. I suppose I have low self-confidence, but whenever someone gives me a kind compliment, I always think they are just being nice. I enjoy reciting poems at Sigma Tau Delta’s open mic night, but I can’t take a compliment afterward.
But during the convention, whenever someone paid me a compliment, I believed them. There was something about the environment; the open attitude of those self-professed English-lovers that made it sincere. After I read my paper, I relished the compliments issued by fellow students. People showed a genuine interest in my work and writing process. Their worlds weren’t oleaginous, and that meant the world to me.
Before attending the convention in Portland, I questioned the value of convening at all. I didn’t realize at the time what a wealth of intellectual and emotional support I would receive from the English community. Seminars about teaching, writing, and publishing buoyed my confidence that English majors can, in fact, get jobs. My peers reviewed my work and gave insightful comments. I shared my graphomania (love of writing) with other like-minded young adults, and felt the comfortable closure of being around people who value similar things.
Plus, I added oleaginous to my vocabulary. Other people might not find that valuable, but I do. Mark Twain would agree with me on this, if you want to galvanize the world with your writing, you need the lightning, not the lightning bug.
So my reflection of the convention trip is this: I love words. But more than that, I love being around people who love words. No man is an island, and no great art is created in a vacuum. The world needs more great words, but it also needs more great people who love great words. I hope to be one of those people, and I am infinitely grateful for the opportunity to meet those who already are.