As Thanksgiving approaches, I find I’m needed in the kitchen and so have asked my occasional guest blogger to step in this month:
The other day, wandering lonely as a cloud through the recesses of the Strand Bookstore in New York City, who/whom should I exchange elbows with but Henrietta “Etty” Alogos, considered by many linguists to be the doyenne etymologist of our time, a woman who when she gives you her word expects you to preserve it in amber.
“My word,” she exclaimed, “it’s you—Bennett. Or, in French, Benet, a silly little country bumpkin beloved by all.”
“I had thought it derived from the Latin benedictus or benedictimus,” I said, “meaning blessed.”
“Bennett,” Etty said, sadly, “you may be right but it just doesn’t matter anymore. We live in a world where words refer only to other words, thanks to that rag-tag bunch of Sorbonne-bred deconstructionists and post-postmodernists.“
“So ‘bumpkin’ and ‘blessed’ aside,” I said, “according to your argument, any word, including my name, could be linked putatively to that of almost anything or anyone, possibly even . . . Shakespeare?”
“Ah. A belligerent fellow by surname if you will, but he knew what a word was worth to his Old Vic audience.”
“Etty, what are words worth these days? I mean, evocatively. A poor young poet with no MFA writing a poem about the joys of nature recollected in tranquility might have a difficult time right now deciding whether the word ‘daffodil’ generates more reader response than, say, ‘asphodel’?”
“My boy, it depends. Some words fly up in value even though most of our thoughts still remain on the down side and never to heaven go, thanks to Monsieur Barthes and his ilk. Daffodil and asphodel share the same narcissus genus, of course, which makes it more difficult to choose one over the other. Couldn’t your versifier simply go on line and ask the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Establishment for guidance on how today’s poetry mavens rate the two flowers?”
It was a sensible suggestion. We embraced wordlessly, and I turned away to seek out the table where remaindered dictionaries and thesauruses were selling at 80% off the publisher’s list price.
— W. E. Bennett