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Saturday, 15 April 2017

Excerpt: Word By Word

We are in an uncomfortably small conference room. It is a cool June day, and though I am sitting stock- still on a corporate chair in heavy air-conditioning, I am sweating heavily through my dress. This is what I do in job interviews.

A month earlier, I had applied for a position at Merriam-Webster, America's oldest dictionary company. The posting was for an editorial assistant, a bottom-of-the-barrel position, but I lit up like a penny arcade when I saw that the primary duty would be to write and edit English dictionaries. I cobbled together a résumé; I was invited to interview. I found the best interview outfit I could and applied extra antiperspirant (to no avail).

Steve Perrault, the man who sat opposite me, was (and still is) the director of defining at Merriam-Webster and the person I hoped would be my boss. He was very tall and very quiet, a sloucher like me, and seemed almost as shyly awkward as I was, even while he gave me a tour of the modest, nearly silent editorial floor. Apparently, neither of us enjoyed job interviews. I, however, was the only one perspiring lavishly.

"So tell me," he ventured, "why you are interested in lexicography."

I took a deep breath and clamped my jaw shut so I did not start blabbing. This was a complicated answer.

###

I grew up the eldest, book-loving child of a blue-collar family that was not particularly literary. According to the hagiography, I started reading at three, rattling off the names of road signs on car trips and pulling salad-dressing bottles out of the fridge to roll their tangy names around on my tongue: Blue Chee-see, Eye-tal-eye-un, Thouse-and Eyes-land. My parents cooed over my precociousness but thought little of it.

I chawed my way through board books, hoarded catalogs, deci­mated the two monthly magazines we subscribed to (National Geo­graphic and Reader's Digest) by reading them over and over until they fell into tatters. One day my father came home from his job at the local power plant, exhausted, and dropped down onto the couch next to me. He stretched, groaning, and plopped his hard hat on my head. "Whatcha reading, kiddo?" I held the book up for him to see: Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, a book from my mother's nursing days of yore. "I'm reading about scleroderma," I told him. "It's a disease that affects skin." I was about nine years old.

When I turned sixteen, I discovered more adult delights: Austen, Dickens, Malory, Stoker, a handful of Brontës. I'd sneak them into my room and read until I couldn't see straight.

It wasn't story (good or bad) that pulled me in; it was English itself, the way it felt in my braces-caged mouth and rattled around my adolescent head. As I grew older, words became choice weap­ons: What else does a dopey, short, socially awkward teenage girl have? I was a capital-n Nerd and treated accordingly. "Never give them the dignity of a response" was the advice of my grandmother, echoed by my mother's terser "Just ignore them." But why play dumb when I could outsmart them, if only for my own satisfaction? I snuck our old bargain-bin Roget's Thesaurus from the bookshelf and tucked it under my shirt, next to my heart, before scurrying off to my room with it. "Troglodyte," I'd mutter when one of the obnoxious guys in the hall would make a rude comment about another girl's body. "Cacafuego," I seethed when a classmate would brag about the raging kegger the previous weekend. Other teens settled for "brownnoser"; I put my heart into it with "pathetic, lick­spittling ass."

But lexophile that I was, I never considered spending a career on words. I was a practical blue-collar girl. Words were a hobby: they were not going to make me a comfortable living. Or rather, I wasn't going to squander a college education—something no one else in my family had—just to lock myself in a different room a few thou­sand miles away and read for fourteen hours a day (though I felt wobbly with infatuation at the very idea). I went off to college with every intention of becoming a doctor. Medicine was a safe profession, and I would certainly have plenty of time to read when I had made it as a neurosurgeon.*


Fortunately for my future patients, I didn't survive organic chemistry—a course that exists solely to weed slobs like me out of the doctoring pool. I wandered into my sophomore year of college rudderless, a handful of humanities classes on my schedule. One of the women in my dorm quizzed me about my classes over Raisin Bran. "Latin," I droned, "philosophy of religion, a colloq on medieval Icelandic family sagas—"

"Hold up," she said. "Medieval Icelandic family sagas. Medieval Icelandic family sagas." She put her spoon down. "I'm going to repeat this to you one more time so you can hear how insane that sounds: medieval Icelandic family sagas."

It did sound insane, but it sounded far more interesting than organic chemistry. If my sojourn into premed taught me anything, it was that numbers and I didn't get along. "Okay, fine," she said, resuming breakfast, "it's your college debt."

###

The medieval Icelandic family sagas are a collection of stories about the earliest Norse settlers of Iceland, and while a good number of them are based in historically verifiable events, they nonetheless sound like daytime soaps as written by Ingmar Bergman. Families hold grudges for centuries, men murder for political advantage, women connive to use their husbands or fathers to bring glory to the family name, people marry and divorce and remarry, and their spouses all die under mysterious circumstances. There are also zombies and characters named "Thorgrim Cod-Biter" and "Ketil Flat-Nose." If there was any cure for my failed premed year, this course was it.

But the thing that hooked me was the class during which my pro­fessor (who, with his neatly trimmed red beard and Oxbridge manner, would no doubt have been called Craig the Tweedy in one of the sagas) took us through the pronunciation of the Old Norse names.

We had just begun reading a saga whose main character is named Hrafnkell. I, like the rest of my classmates, assumed this unfortunate jumble of letters was pronounced \huh-RAW-funk-ul\ or \RAW-funk-ell\. No, no, the professor said. Old Norse has a different pronunciation convention. "Hrafnkell" should be pronounced—and the sounds that came out of his mouth are not able to be rendered in the twenty-six letters available to me here. The "Hraf" is a guttural, rolled \HRAHP\, as if you stopped a sprinter who was out of breath and clearing their throat and asked them to say "crap." The -n-is a swallowed hum, a little break so your vocal cords are ready for the glorious flourish that is "-kell." Imagine saying "blech"—the sound kids in commercials make when presented with a plate of steamed broccoli instead of Strawberry Choco-Bomb Crunch cereal. Now replace the /bl/ with a /k/ as in "kitten." That is the pronunciation of "Hrafnkell."

No one could get that last sound right; the whole class sounded like cats disgorging hair balls. "Ch, ch," our professor said, and we dutifully mimicked: uch, uch. "I'm spitting all over myself," one student complained, whereupon the professor brightened. "Yeah," he chirped, "yeah, you've got it!"

That final double-l in Old Norse, he said, was called the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. "What?" I blurted, and he repeated: "voiceless alveolar lateral fricative." He went on to say it was used in Welsh, too, but I was lost to his explanation, instead tumbling in and over that label. Voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. A sound that you make, that you give voice to, that is nonetheless called "voiceless" and that, when issued, can be aimed like a stream of chewing tobacco, laterally. And "fricative"—that sounded hopelessly, gorgeously obscene.

I approached the professor after class. I wanted, I told him, to major in this—Icelandic family sagas and weird pronunciations and whatever else there was.

"You could do medieval studies," he suggested. "Old English is the best place to start."

(Source: NPR)

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