“When we select words […] we by no means always take them from […] their neutral, dictionary definition […] But words can enter our speech from others’ individual utterances, thereby retaining to a greater or lesser degree the tones and echoes of individual utterances.”
-Mikhail Bakhtin, “The Problem of Speech Genres”
As far as I understand Bakhtin, he’s saying we don’t always pick up words from the dictionary. We pick them up from people talking. And in picking them up we carry those people with us. I read that and think, of course, but it also has me thinking.
Adumbrate comes, for me, from Professor Sarah Travis. She wasn’t the one I heard say it—it was in a reading she assigned. We talked about that reading, and for me the word carries a sense of how I imagine she’d used it. Of the shape she’d give it with the way she looks at the world. When I start looking for examples of word-giving, adumbrate’s easy to find. I picked it up just a few weeks ago. What about the words I picked up years and years and years ago?
I think snowpack, for me, comes from my father. It has Shirley Canyon in it, and the frozen creek we walked along, and the sound of a shovel digging out the walkway. Conversationalist comes from my mother. I was eleven or twelve, and I hadn’t really thought of words and conversation as something a little like paints and a shared canvas. Eddy comes from my older brother, from learning to kayak. A rippling place that’s steady because of how it moves. Triple step comes from my little brother. I hear the syllables in his voice. I hear what they mean to him, and can see him starting to dance. Those examples are easier to find because I don’t use them all that much. I can still feel the mark of where they came from. What about my other words, my walk and cook, my cloudbank and curlique and crisp?
I like thinking of them as something passed to me. As something, before that, passed to the person who gave them to me. As little stones warming with our hands.