y father loved words. He dug through the dim cleavage of old dictionaries for clues and explanations. Youth didn’t excuse me from the rules of usage, which he enunciated with vigor. Unique was a superlative and unavailable to modifiers. “Very unique” was lax nonsense.
So was “The reason is because…” Reason and because are both causal. “The is reason is that,” or “It’s because,” but not the double-positive union.
Winston couldn’t taste good “like” a cigarette should — a TV slogan of the day — because “like” was comparative; “like the time I met a girl with dark brown eyes,” for example. If Winston tasted good it was, “as” a cigarette should.
If words were once a verbal culture’s strict lynchpins, they are now visual culture’s loose props. Casualness takes the rap for Rap. Language’s keen cement set aside in favor of a trampoline, its rubbery membrane in constant motion, gorging on the emphatic slang (“totally” and “awesome” and even poor “very” are necessary modifiers while “reference” and “priority” have been transformed into singular ugly and unmusical verbs).
Even “cool,” a chameleon word for all seasons, resonates differently now than it did in 1955 or 1970. “Contact,” born a noun — “They made contact with the ship!” — was long ago “trans-gendered” into a verb, “Please contact him.”
Words are acrobats at work. They are means to get to the sounds of intent. Think of the word “pummel” and its punch. Or the ooze in “salacious.”
My father typed words he liked or intended to use on flash cards that he folded into his wallet. One such card I still have 50 years later, stained and soiled. On it are 10 underlined words, beginning with “apodeictic — involving necessary truth; capable of clear, certain demonstration,” and ending with “Irenicism — social temper or public opinion for peace.” Eidetic, or vivid, is another word on the Greek-root list. Over the years I’ve found only a few of the words in my father’s rich, clear and lucid verbal galaxy.
In August 1945, writing about the relationship between the United States and postwar Europe for the progressive Catholic magazine Commonweal, his probing elegance may have reached its moral apogee. “Have we not made a fetish of material security without delving fully into the human need for security? Have we not reached after fact and reason on the assumption that they could and would clear up the uncertainties, mysteries, doubts with which the ordinary man cannot comfortably live? May not the war of man against man in all of its forms be at bottom a struggle between one part of man and the external projection of another part of himself?”
This was my father, the bald political scientist and novelist with whom I played make-believe word games on the Trailways bus to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. He’d invent a word I’d instantly need to define.
“Plimper,” he said.
A man who sells quail by moonlight, I replied.
A vain peasant.
Rain water forms a triddle at the base of the hill.
It would then be my turn to round out fanciful sounds.
“Yalloon,” I began.
An old bucket, he explained. “Boy, toss me the rusty yalloon!”
Someone sensitive to the wind. “The man was a sassaraffer, always had been; he couldn’t stand the sea.”
“With all that frexxing,” said my father, “it’s a wonder any of us gets any sleep.”
I smiled. Even now, I frex too much.
We’d sometimes turn to the language of love, of which I knew nothing. I was a young teenager at the time, confused and shy. I often felt like a rowl in a triddle, abashed. He knew this awkward feeling.
So we made up love words to soften the mystery.
“Slisher,” I said, considering kisses.
A deep blush, he offered. “Look at him, slishering that way. He’s like a rowl.”
Ah, said my father. Hesitancy. “Women didn’t liked him because he was farnubrious, rarely showing his affection.” And if you were farnubrious, he added, you’d also be likely to frex. The romantic options available to a farnubrious frexxer were thus severely limited.
One with an active tongue, I said, gaining confidence.
The warmth emanated by a human body. “His sindelee startled her…”
Two hands entwined, thackled.
By the time we’d reached the beach three hours later we’d established a whole lexicon. We’d return to these invented words from time to time in later years, mostly to lighten the mood.
My favorite recurrence was in December 1973, weeks before his death. He was in Rome, writing copious letters. “I have aged suddenly,” he wrote to me. “It alarms me to be so ill.” The tone was grave, depressed, alarming, until the last paragraph.
“My greatest concern, however, is for you, and your relationship with women. I have become a farnubrious sassaraffer. Do not become the same. Slish if you must, but get to thackling while you’re young.”
It took extracting my head from a hefty yalloon, but the sindelee, when I finally felt it, was worth the wait.