One of the few novels that I read again and again (every two or three years) is Don DeLillo’s magnificent Underworld. I won’t give too much plot away, but there is one section where a teenager is wasting his life away in a young offenders’ institution. He’s got no worldly prospects, not desire to put things right or move forward, no personal ambition at all. And the path to his redemption begins when one of his mentors, an elderly Jesuit, asks him to name the holes through which the laces are threaded in his shoes.
The Jesuit has a thing about shoes, and before too long he has given him an education in every aspect of the shoe, and the technical word for every single piece of leather and string and metal and cloth that goes to make up this triumph of human civilisation. (It reminds me, by the way, of that scene in the West Wing Series 6 when Josh first meets Senator Vinick, who gives him a lecture in the art of polishing shoes.) It’s the first time that the teenager has ever really paid attention to the world, and seen that there is a truth out there waiting to be discovered. A truth that is bigger than his narrow emotional connection with his environment that has defined his life up to this point. Even if it is just the truth of the humble shoe.
I say all this because I had one of those ‘vocabulary’ moments yesterday. I was visiting a friend with an outside staircase up to his first floor flat. I kept scuffing my shoes on the front of the steps, and I said that the stairs were very ‘narrow’. My friend said that this wasn’t the right word – narrow would be the width of the stairs from one side to the other. I wanted to describe the horizontal distance from the front edge of one step to the front edge of the next step; the space, in other words, that you have to step into before your foot falls over the edge.
My friend happened to do a carpentry course thirty years ago, went to an old bookshelf and pulled out a dusty file of handwritten notes about the construction of staircases. And there it was. The height of one step above the other is ‘the rise’. And the horizontal distance from the front of one step to the front of the next is ‘the going’. Isn’t that beautiful! A word that describes exactly what I wanted to describe. That people use every day. That was there all the time without me knowing it. The joy of language. And found without Wikipedia — although you can see the Wiki definitions here.
A final connected aside/recommendation: A great track on a great album, Aimee Mann’s ‘I know there’s a word for this’ on her masterpiece Whatever.