WORD: What is a hogfish anyway?

November 28, 2016

     While searching my dictionary for the correct spelling of wildebeest, I came across the word "willie-waught." Willie-waught! Such whimsy and playfulness, I actually smiled when I read it.

     My dictionary is bound with duct tape, its torn pages taped. My kids' dictionaries languish on bookshelves, spines barely creased. The computer has spellcheck, they remind me. I can find any fact I need on the Internet. I agree wholeheartedly we live in a glorious age of information and innovation. But still, I worry. For every technological gain, something is irretrievably lost. In the case of language, can we afford the loss?

     Using the example of an excursion through a dictionary, I suggest the joy of random discovery is greatly diminished. While a computer search would have retrieved everything I ever wanted to know about wildebeests, I'd never have learned of the existence of willie-waught. Or "hogfish," for that matter, a word that stopped me in my tracks on the way OUT of the dictionary. Even a major retailer once captured this experience in its advertisements. ("I went in for a diamond-tipped tool and came out with diamond earrings.") You probably never forget those times in your life when you were looking for one thing, but found another instead. And no one needs a reminder about Columbus.

     Nuance too is lost in our rush to absorb more information more quickly. Variants of the word "transient" - transitory, ephemeral, momentary, fugitive - all possess subtle shades of difference in their meanings. Untutored in these niceties, we risk drowning in shallow water, and not just linguistically. A mind impatient of subtlety is likely to be less sensitive and empathetic.

     On the eve of World War II, the poet W. H. Auden wrote, "O let not Time deceive you/You cannot conquer Time." Among the losses in a technologically-driven world may be counted a sense of reality. Just because we can manipulate time with our various devices does not mean, as Auden cautions, we have mastered it. We can retrieve more information more readily, but we are not necessarily any wiser. Wisdom comes of patience, reflection, depth of understanding - casualties of an impatient, reactive society addicted to more of everything faster.

     The word willie-waught, by the way, means "a deep draft (as of ale)." A deep draft - my point exactly. And the ale's not a bad idea either.

     After his death, Auden's dictionary was discovered in his room, its pages as ravaged as his face.

 

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