He brushed his shot glass off the table and stood up.
When I took the GREs–the Graduate Record Examinations, the test that you take in the US when you want to go to graduate school–I scored in the top 1 percentile on vocabulary. I say that not to brag, but to give you some quantitative measure for when I say that in English, I know a lot of words. That doesn’t mean that I never have to look anything up, though.
Molly could not see him weaving against the table out there in the dark while he was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again.
From a linguist’s point of view, the challenge of definition is not to say what a thing is. (Please, no hate mail–yes, I know that we define words, not things.) Rather, the challenge of definition is to say what it is not. I don’t mean this in a Saussurean sense, necessarily, but just from a practical point of view: tell me what a chair is. OK, I get that you are not talking about a bed. But, is what you are describing distinguishable from a couch? How about from a bench? A loveseat? A stool? A loveseat? A recliner? A doll-sized chair? A toilet? The table below gives you an example of the kinds of definitional gymnastics that you find yourself going through in such exercises. I have adapted this from Sandrine Zufferey and Jacques Moeschler’s Initiation à l’étude du sens : sémantique et pragmatique , the best introductory text on semantics that I’ve seen thus far. Unfortunately my copy is sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains right now, so I made up the details. Oh, yeah–and unlike their table, mine’s in English.
|must have back||x||x||x||x|
|room for two people but no more||x|
|room for more than two people||x||x|
|can have as few as three legs||x|
He felt a sickening sort of shame, this was just the way he wished not to be in finding her again: broke, sick and hunted. What was it someone had said of her long ago? “She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.”
So, today I wake up at 4 AM, as I often do. Normally I start my day with the American news, but the country that I love so much is falling apart so quickly these days that I felt like I needed a few minutes to prepare myself before facing the latest revelations regarding Trump helping Putin with his little Ukrainian problem. I pulled out the novel that I’ve almost finished–Nelson Algren’s The man with the golden arm. I laid it down last night at a point where our hero, on the lam from the coppers, has gone looking for his lost love in a bar in an even seedier part of town than his own. There’s a sort of burlesque show in the bar, and he spots his flower in the chorus line. He is in big trouble, he’s starting to jones for his next fix (that’s junkie slang: he is going into withdrawal and needs a hit of morphine: broke, sick and hunted), and he is truly at the end of his rope. A lifesaver: he’s found his girl. But: as she leaves the stage, he knows full well that he does not want her to see him like this.
Then the act was done and she was gone, they were all gone as if they hadn’t been there at all. As though the whole act had been a kickback from an overcharge, something he’d formed in his brain out of beer fumes and smoke.
Being a linguist and knowing the primacy of not specification, but rather differentiation, in matters of definition, it bugs the shit out of me that I know lots of words such that I know what category of thing they are, but I could not begin to tell them apart from other things of the same class–by very venerable linguistic theory, this should not happen. For example: I know that amaryllis, dahlia, and freesia are all flowers, but I could not point any of those three out to you on a bet. I know that opal, tourmaline, and amethyst are gemstones, but again–hand me three gemstones and ask me if one of them is a tourmaline or not, and I’m just gonna scratch my beard and excuse myself to go to the bathroom. (Minus the beard-scratching, that last tactic for dealing with social discomfort turns out to be a pretty plausible example of how people end up claiming that they have taught chimpanzees American Sign Language. A story for another time, perhaps.)
Yet went weaving heavily through smoke and fumes toward the tiny dressing room offstage.
Wearing army brogans on his feet.
OK, so… I already know that brogans are a kind of footwear–it’s not like I’ve never run into the word before. But, I couldn’t tell you what kind. The character is a recently-discharged World War II veteran, and his brogans have been mentioned many times in this novel, rom other references over the course of the novel to his heavy-footed walking, I infer that they are…well, heavy. But, Algren didn’t say a few sentences earlier that his love was “the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on,” and then specify what kind of footwear he’s wearing as he walks into her dressing room after not having seen her for months, by accident. (Algren was a treasure of the post-war American novel–he doesn’t do shit like that by accident. A French connection: he was Simone de Beauvoir’s other lover. Of course she left him for Sartre, who had translated Algren’s novel Never come morning into la langue de Molière.)
So, off I go to the dictionary. And to Wikipedia. And to Google Images, too, ’cause it is sometimes a damn fine resource for jury-rigged visual definitions. (A little topical reference there: jury-rigged, which means something like “improvised with whatever happens to be at hand,” is said to be derived from the wartime slang term to jerry-rig.) What I find: a brogan is a low-topped boot. The picture at the top of the page shows a pair of WWII-era US Army brogans. The gaiters worn above them were made redundant when combat boots became standard issue–they’re higher, so you don’t need the gaiters to “blouse” your trouser legs. A contemporary reader would have known what he meant; reading the book today, which was written before I was born–a very long time ago–I knew that brogans were footwear, but hadn’t a clue what kind. So: top 1 percent on the vocabulary portion of the GRE (don’t be too impressed–I was around the 50th percentile on math, maybe even lower), but I had to look a word up.
That’s being a linguist for you… The beauty of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data, and the horror of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data. As far as definitions go: as my colleague Orin Hargraves, a fine lexicographer, pointed out to me while we were working on our paper Three dimensions of reproducibility in natural language processing, in which we and a cast of thousands of other colleagues proposed a set of definitions for talking about the results of experiments–trying to propose definitions might be somewhat pointless anyways, as in the end word meanings are determined by how they are used within the structure of the language, not by any prescriptive authority. Did my linguisticness interfere with my enjoyment of Nelson’s finely-wrought prose? Did it actually make me more aware of its beautiful craftsmanship? I don’t know. What I do know: now I’m going to go see what happens when he gets to her dressing room.
Want to know more about the myriad complications of thinking about definitions? See Elisabetta Ježek’s excellent book The lexicon: An introduction. Source of the picture of a pair of brogans at the top of the page: Eastman Leather Clothing Blog, blog.eastmanleather.com/view-post/the-us-combat-boot.
He was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again.
…is weird. I have never heard the construction understand to [someone]. A quick search on Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them, reveals nothing similar (yes, I did a Word Sketch, too):