That which cannot be named

There are, as people who delight in such trivia well know, words for many, many things that do not need to be named. Words for the irrational fear of beards, priests, buttons, hieroglyphs. Words for types of stitches, particles, wood grains.


Not one for pogonophobics… Image: Gaspar

My favourite recent acquisition, kindly supplied by a friend, is a word dedicated exclusively to the pursuit of desirable sexual partners amongst haystacks at night. Sprunt, in case you were wondering (and you should have been wondering).

It is in fact impossible to open a page of a reasonably good dictionary and not be struck by a word the existence of which you had never suspected, and the use of which you will never attempt. To prove this theory I have just opened a dictionary to three random pages. Without any effort or need to dredge unduly I thereby discovered lutescent, paw-paw and screeve: meaning tending to yellow, obscene, and to be a pavement artist respectively.

There is a certain charm to many of these dusty lexicographical heirlooms, receding into the dimness of syntactical disuse; on occasion even a kind of joy in the discovery of something at once precious and purposeless.

There is also, however, a limit to the number of times one can be told, eagerly, of some dubious classical bastardisation signifying ‘a fear of clowns who wear white gloves and stand with their weight predominantly on one foot’ and be entertained: it is either one, or so close to one as to be statistically identical to it.

And yet, despite the superabundance of terminology as the language grows and grows (English, since it is the global language of neologisms, is now vastly fatter than any other tongue, and expanding at the same rate as the ingenuity of crackpot scientists – ie really quite fast) I’d contend that if you stopped reading this right now and looked around your room, you would see dozens of objects that you’d be unable to name.

I’m looking at a window. I know the name for that all right. The device that makes the blind work: um, a type of ratchet? Then there’s a latch, I guess, to open the window. And then this kind of rail thing on the bottom with holes in, and if you rest the hole over the, um, nubbin, on the window-frame, you can adjust how open the window is (to a bafflingly small degree).

So several of the precise terms for parts of a window escape me. This is before I have even begun with architraves, and coping, and coving, and the brass threshold strip-type thing between rooms. Looking around, I am forced to conclude that we live in a sort of blurred reality, where the things you need are in sharp focus, and the things you don’t occupy a shadowy hinterland of the mind, nameless, near-indescribable.

Not only do we live surrounded by unnameable items: we also live with shadowy concepts that, since they lack a name, our brains are unable quite to formulate – or at least to do so with punch. If, for example, we had a word to signify ‘a not-uncontented awareness of one’s insignificance amid the eternal cosmos’, then I think the world would be a much better place.

Likewise ‘a profound conviction that each of us connects to something greater, either the ongoing human project or something slightly more spiritual, that nevertheless reserves disdain for new-age spiritualism, wishy-washy agnosticism, and religious certainty’. Again: one word, easily understood – widespread social improvement.

It will therefore be my life’s work, I state airily (ie I will never think of it again after today), to locate precise terms for those objects currently languishing in half-seen obscurity, and to invent words that improve the way we think. I’m starting small, with a personal bugbear. I want a gender-neutral pronoun for a living thing (‘one’ was never quite that, and in any case is now obsolete).

Currently we use the third person plural as a kind of vague indeterminate: ‘There’s someone at the door,’; ‘What do they want?’. Scruffy. Not pleasing. A new word would tidy up. But it would also have great benefits when people thrust under your nose, as they do, their pets and new-born infants.

You can’t say (and I’ve tried): ‘How pretty it is!’ when someone gives you a baby. You have to guess. You will be wrong; the parent will give you an understanding but pained smile, and correct you; awkwardness ensues. No longer, once our new word is at hand!

You may think: no parent minds having their sweet graceful three-month-old daughter mistaken for some thuggish lad purely due to an aversion to the colour pink. However, add fifteen years to this scenario. The child is to all intents and purposes genderless; you have forgotten [WORD REQUIRED; WILL USE ‘THEIR’ FOR NOW] their name, or it is as ambiguous as [AS BEFORE WILL DEFAULT TO ‘THEY’] they are: you are stuffed. Especially if you get it wrong, repeatedly, for an hour-long lesson…

And now the power of words-as-concepts becomes apparent. Once we have a word for a living thing that is gender-free, we will be rid of the anxiety of pigeon-holing into gender. We won’t seek to enquire. We will simply use the new word, and leave people free to interpret their masculinity, femininity and gender-ambiguity in their own way. We will become more tolerant, more free, more equal. We will become better.

All that we need to usher in this brave new world is one brave new word: and here, on the very cusp of victory, I falter. We actually need three new words once cases and possessives are taken into account (to match ‘he/him/his’). Part of me wants to rehash the past and go for ‘thee/thar/thy’. I just like it, especially ‘thar’. Part of me wants to go vaguely Northern: ‘em/oom/ems’. I like oom, too. English should contain the word oom.

To be honest, having vastly improved gender relations with the whole concept, I’m relaxed on detail. I think this achievement is deserving of minions who can footle with the specifics. They can do the legwork of finding someone on the street and asking oom to tell us what em thinks. See? English with oom in it. You know you want this to be the future…

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Will le Fleming is a novelist. His debut, Central Reservation, is published by Xelsion and available now. Read more...

On a grey Thursday morning Holly lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wished her sister would die. Five hours later her wish came true. Read more...

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