Tuesday, February 7, 2012

the language of laughter

I miss the times when I have hung out with people who knew and enjoyed language, who liked to play with the toys of the human heritage and ... laugh. That was the key, I suppose -- the laughter.

"The Dictionary Game" was a formalized example of such a playground. The game consisted of several people sitting around while one member held the dictionary. The person with the book would find a word that everyone agreed they did not know the meaning of. Then each participant would write down a fictitious definition of the word, even as the person holding the dictionary would copy some version of the real definition. When everyone finished, they would pass their papers to the dictionary-holder who would read each of them in turn, including the real definition. The test was to guess the correct definition ... or to write a definition that would fool other participants. Among people familiar with dictionary definitions, it would sometimes be very hard to winkle out the truth ... some definitions were just wacky or solemn enough to be true. The hardest job was reserved for the person who read out the definitions ... to keep a straight face. By the end of the guessing game, almost invariably, everyone was laughing their asses off.

Part of the fun, I suppose, was the underlying recognition that, as a courtesy of communication, words have a serious meaning and deserve to be used appropriately. In one sense they are as tightly circumscribed as a cow in a cattle chute. But simultaneously, words really had no meaning at all -- they could be any damned thing you wanted ... a sound and significance that might fit anywhere and mean anything ... that, using your mother tongue, you could speak a delightful foreign language. Such gibberish was only fun to the extent anyone had a grounded sense of the serious uses of a silly product. Those are the people I miss.

This morning, for example, I woke up thinking of the word "molybdenum." It rose up flavorful as a piece of rock candy on the tongue. I knew vaguely that it had to do with metal, but I wasn't interested in its solemn place in the litany of language. I was interested in its flavor and silly possibilities.

"Molybednum and Alexandra sat silent on the corral rail, looking out over the bayou towards the setting sun...."

"As a precaution, the doctor inserted the molybdenum during the colonoscopy...."

"Jessica's habit of pouring molybdenum on virtually every piece of food that was set before her perplexed and irritated her mother. When would that girl learn table manners?!"

"It was a languorous kiss, almost molybednous in its quiet intensity."

"The guard slammed the molybdenum home. It was at that moment when Peter finally realized he was in prison."

"Cherubim, seraphim and molybdenum -- a trifecta of blazing, angelic benevolence."

"All of Rome knew they were doomed when they looked into the surrounding hills and saw the hordes of Visigoths, bearing the molybdenum before them."

Once upon a time, there used to be advertisements for books promising to increase the reader's  vocabulary. "Use a word ten times in a day and it is yours" was one of the advertising hooks. Yes, a good vocabulary is useful: No point is seeming any dumber than you are. But when a word becomes "yours," it's fun -- or perhaps disconcerting -- to ask what it is you actually possess.

Laughter is as good an answer as any, I guess.

No comments:

Post a Comment