“The Secret Lives of Words,” Paul West”s latest non-fiction work, is a wonderful and guilty pleasure. Though hardly comparable, in terms of universal appeal, to eating chocolate late at night or reading shoddy romance novels (which strike me, in their sweaty and cheap disregard for word-love, as Mr. West”s worst nightmare come to life), the book is a delightful volume of knowledge.
It teems with fascinating word-histories, abounding with an obvious adoration more like obsession for words their depths and shadows, their hidden-underneath-centuries meanings and subtleties.
In other words, avocado means testicle. (Because of its shape, derived from the Latin-American Indian word ahuacatl, and later into English, transformed into alligator pear, which the author claims is still in use, and which this reviewer find charmingly accurate as a description.)
West has chosen a creative and eclectic combination of words, so reading what mrok means (a greeting) might not induce the same lexicon amusement as the fact that chess turns out to be the Persian plural of the word checks. By saying check, the king you have just warned your friend to protect is actually an old Persian Shah. And checkmate (shah-mat in Persian) translates, solemnly, into: The king is dead.
A personal favorite would have to be clich, an old printer”s term that implies a “frying noise.”
However much fun these etymologies are, the book, if read in succession rather than chunks, dwindles in interest and grows tiresome. Despite the bright and word-giddy introduction, the passages themselves, after a long, exhaustive succession of idle reading, were better read daily, a few at a time so as not to explode from the mind-boggling stew of languages, cultures, history (OK, pretty much everything) that goes into the murky, entangled construction of one word.
West does raise some very thought provoking questions. One, which I found highly appropriate to the material was: How much work is too much?
Though West is referring to his own fanatical research (in the opening paragraph he compares his eccentric fixation, among other colorful descriptions, to leaving a room with the light on: “Thus managing to install in your wake a patch of clutching, nagging brightness that a few yards further on you feel impelled to return to and deal with”), he also makes a canny inquiry into what constitutes a “good reader.”
West also questions: Is a highliter thus a necessary tool? Does stopping to think in the middle of a book steer you away from the grips of a narrative, or does looking up an unknown word clog your brain with too much data?
Of course not. In West”s passion, as with any deepening interest into something that moves or touches you (music, art, film, etc.), the idea driving him on (or me on), needling him constantly like some craggy nit-picking relative, was that knowledge should not be checked (no Persian reference intended) but rather greedily devoured. It is a shame to read, or view or listen blindly and that there are worlds of undiscovered things between the lines, in the implications of a word, the white space of a poem, a slight bodily gesture that speaks volumes.
Recently I had a rather drunken conversation with someone my age, who insisted that literature was pointless because everyone has a different opinion. He argued, what”s the point of reading? (The sound of a “frying noise” comes to mind).
Well, what”s the point of anything? West”s book can definitely be overwhelming at times, especially for the non-word lover. It is, however, an intriguing study into what we say.
The mountains of time that have passed to form a language we so often take for granted, this book is a hysterical look into the “spastic miscreants born to disguise and deformity.”