Some years ago, a friend of mine, a native speaker of Japanese, was frustrated after a tough English test, and he said, “In Japanese, words just mean what the dictionary says they mean. In English, you always have to use your imagination.”
I thought that observation was so true — and so (unintentionally) laudatory of the English language — that I wrote it down. Probably every writer in the world would say this about his/her own mother tongue, but it seems to me that English is simply made for art. There are so many possibilities for expression — as painters-with-words, we have palettes that are miles-wide. In English poetry, a single word can resonate with two, three, or four different meanings at once, maybe more.
As a native English speaker, I’m forever applying imagination to my communication in Japanese when I don’t know the right word for something, and it either draws blank stares or cases of rolling-on-the-floor-laughing-out-loud. Once I was trying to express “turtleneck sweater,” and I had no idea what it was called in Japanese, so I said it literally — and boy, did people laugh! In English, our names for many objects tend to be descriptions of those objects made from combinations of words (phone + book = phonebook). But in Japanese, there’s much more often one specific word for every single concept. (You have to learn the word for “phonebook” — you can’t get by with combining “phone” and “book.”) Another time, I said, literally, in Japanese “chicken sandwich” — and people rolled on the floor again, because they pictured a clucking, full-feathered chicken thrashing between two pieces of bread. The special word for it in Japanese is, very specifically, “chicken-meat sandwich” — which gets no laughter at all.
But anyway, we live in this glorious language in which a word can have more scintillating facets than a jewel. Here’s an illustration from my book Dragonfly (hey, this is a blog, okay? — people expect you to talk about yourself!): the Untowards are teams of just-barely-domesticated (or maybe not) goat-like creatures. As large as horses, the Untowards are highly intelligent, wild as Faery, and when they’re hitched to a wagon, they buck and scramble and dance. Surging, rebounding off each other and off whatever may crop up along the roadside, they seem determined to tear the harness and the wagon into pieces and careen away in opposite directions. Yet somehow, they end up together at the journey’s end, with the wagon (usually) still intact. They’re called Untowards because, 1.) they’re difficult to guide, manage, or work with, as expressed by the English word “untoward”; 2.) a second meaning of “untoward” is marked by trouble or unhappiness; unlucky; not favorable; unpropitious — as reflective of the feelings any sane person might have when boarding a wagon about to be dragged away into the night by Untowards; 3.) they seem not to be heading in the right direction at all, and not interested in doing so: “un-toward” — not at all toward; 4.) but ultimately, they ward you unto your destination — they are “unto-wards.”
Thanks, folks! You’ve been great! I’ll be here all week.
Okay, here’s a more recent example that most people haven’t heard. In The Fires of the Deep (the book set in the dark underground world), a village is called a “paling.” There’s Lodin Umbir Paling, Sand Paling, Bridgend Paling, Dunsan Paling, Lost Echo Paling . . . you get the idea. That’s a purposefully-chosen word that indicates the Hurlim people’s relationship with their vast, lightless, silent, largely empty environment. In the subterranean realm, the darkness — or rather, the obscurity, since there is no light, and hence no “darkness” — is absolute and ubiquitous. It’s called Lachii, which means everything beyond what you can see; it is synonymous with “infinity” and “eternity.” The sea which has no farther side known to mortals is the Vooren Lachii.
Anyway — where people gather and live, there is a tiny, tiny circle of sound and motion in the Lachii — a “paling of the darkness,” in a light/dark analogy: only a paling or dimming of the dark, because the dark doesn’t go away; the dark is supreme. But people, in their little communities of warmth and activity, temporarily push the darkness back a little.
“Paling” also has the meaning of a stake or post, and by extension, a fence or perimeter you might build out of such stakes. Again, a good name for a community in the Hurlim world — a place where humans have staked out a small plot of ground.
Finally, “pale” has the meaning of a zone of influence — and so, in this story, a place where people exert a bit of control, for a time, over the eternal Lachii.
Okay, one final example, from a poem of mine written years ago, titled “I Am Looking at Lilacs”: in one pair of lines, I talked about “Traveling fernwise / The whispering hedge.” Fernwise can mean both “in the direction of ferns,” as in “clockwise” — and “with a knowledge of ferns, a wisdom born of ferns,” as in “streetwise.”
So — this could be the springboard for a great list. Has anyone else got good examples? No, no, they don’t have to be from my oeuvre! They might be from your own, or from the vast world of stories out there. Can you think of a wording that has stuck with you, an instance of a writer using a word to do amazing double- or triple-duty?
Words are fun, and they can wear many hats. We live in this language that always forces us to use our imaginations.