Sunday, 29 July 2012

Word Love

I guess it might be a little surprising to hear that a writer of fiction would choose as one of his most loved books a work of reference, and such an unconsidered one at that.

It happened like this: when I was a kid I happened across a little dog-eared gray-blue hardback that must have come from the 1920's because in the back was a section on "Terms of Special Note in Modern Warfare." It mentioned words that had, I supposed, come out of the First World War. It also had an art nouveau pattern on the cover, which I found oddly compelling and an impenetrable title: Blackie’s Compact Etymological Dictionary.

I went to a proper dictionary and looked that peculiar word up. Now I know that some people think 'etymology' is something to do with bugs, but actually it's about the origins of words, which was interesting to me, because even at that tender age I loved words. It's not unknown for writers to get interested in the tools of their trade. I became that kind of writer. I love words. I love their organic chemistry - the ways they'll fit together, or won't fit together. I love the music they make, and the way they're able to arouse the strongest of passions.

Of course I love all that, for manipulating words has been my chosen art. But I also love words for themselves. To me, they are like seeds that carry inside them the essence of culture. No English speaker can entirely forget the Greeks or Romans, while we still have a word like 'television' hanging around in our vocabularies.

As an English kid in Sydney, Australia, I got my first taste of where words came from, and why they’re spelled the way they are. I began to appreciate the many different sorts of English we have and how they got to be that way. That, in turn, fed into an interest in history. I found out, through examining words, that each age stamped itself on a language, and that the past was another country where they did things differently. Years later, I started to understood the many ways in which words could become mightier than swords.

So let's hear it for Blackie’s Compact Etymological Dictionary. One of the books I have loved the most.

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