by Gabrielle Zevin, July 21, 2022 8:45 AM
The better one gets at speaking any language, the better one becomes at subtlety, and then at obfuscating. And isn’t there a profound sadness to this?
Once I was on book tour in China. At events, readers kept coming up to me and calling me “sexy.” I couldn’t figure out why so many people suddenly found me “sexy” until my Chinese editor pointed out to me that “sexy” is one of a handful of positive adjectives that the average Chinese person knows in English. Be that as it may, I felt a little sexy on that tour.
I was an avid dictionary reader as a child, and a great tragedy for me was when I figured out that my dictionary had been condensed! Do you mean to say there are more words than what’s here? How will I ever learn them all? A feeling of panic and hopelessness set in — I am a native English speaker, and I will never truly master English. I was twelve.
Thirty years later, I still do not know all the words, but I keep trying. My favorite word I’ve recently acquired is sciamachy. It is a glorious beast of a word. I give it five stars because it expresses something perfectly that I did not know there was a word for! It means the tendency to fight with an imaginary opponent. This describes me. I fight imaginary opponents all the time — it is brutal combat… in my head. My natural resting state is sciamachy. There is a relief to hearing a word that expresses something you have always felt. Yes, the thing I feel, the thing I experience has a name. I imagine it is something like the feeling of relief when you finally receive the correct diagnosis of a disease — huzzah, that which plagues me has a name!
Simon Freeman is not the main character in my new book, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, but he, like me, takes a particular delight in German words. German words, of course, are the best. He experiences torschlusspanik — which means, literally “gate shut panic” — the fear that you will miss out on an opportunity and that the gates are closing behind you. If there was one word to describe the vibe of my twenties, it would be this word. Complete and utter, screaming torschlusspanik all the time. Unfortunately, I did not know this word until I was forty. What I believed, in my twenties, was that I was the only one who felt that way, that I was unique in my anxiety. But if there is a word for it, that cannot be so.
Another German word Simon and I both love is zweisamkeit. It means the feeling of being alone when you are with people — this is me. I am never so desperately lonely as when I am at a party. But a thing that makes me feel less alone is knowing that other people experience zweisamkeit too. They must; there is a word!
A thing that makes me feel less alone is knowing that other people experience zweisamkeit too. They must; there is a word!
Although The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is not rife with vulgarity, I used to receive many letters about its use of the F-word. I do not have any feelings about the F-word so I will call it by its name, fuck. I do not think, in general, there are good words or bad words. Truly bad words are words that are meant to hurt or to rob someone else of humanity: e.g., the N-word, or not respecting someone’s pronouns. In the end, I use fuck because it is expressive and because I have written a character in A.J. Fikry who, like me, doesn’t feel like fuck has a particularly magical power. It is not nearly as magical as sciamachy or ludic or pelagic or anfractuous or Voldemort. A woman wrote me to say that she could not believe that "someone with [my] education would use such vulgar language" and that it was a shame the book was so vulgar because now she would not be able to recommend it to her friends. It was a memorable line of thinking for me because what my education has taught me is how little power fuck has. It is one of many words, and I find it mainly interesting for its comic properties. I was tempted to write her back that there are many vulgar people and things that are, of course, entirely free from vulgarity.
A good word for me is a word that expresses precisely what I mean. I have spent my life in pursuit of these words. The more words I know, the more precisely I can express human experience. The more precisely I can express human experience, the closer I can get to understanding myself.
At the same time, I have stopped caring so much about being understood by everyone. Perhaps there is a German word for this phenomenon — to stop caring about being understood, but if there is I do not know it. To wit, I will publish my tenth novel this year, and what I know for certain is there will come a time when someone will read this novel and come away with a meaning that is not the one I intended. They will make conclusions about me and my motivations. Depending on how eloquently the opinion is expressed, I will have hurt feelings about this, and then I will move on and write another novel. To live in the world is to be misunderstood. When I was in high school, my takeaway line of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” At forty-four, it is: "That is not what I meant at all."
Sam and Sadie, the main characters in Tomorrow are both geniuses, and they sometimes use language to obfuscate. To be brilliant is not always to be brilliant at connecting with humans. To use a grand word can be arrogant, or it can be precise, or it can be because the simplest words (love, e.g.) are sometimes too much to bear.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the bestselling author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
, and several other critically acclaimed novels. Her books have been translated into forty languages. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
is the #1 Indie Next Pick for July and recently debuted on the New York Times
Best Seller list.