The actor’s face came up on the screen and I could remember his first name but his second took about four hours to arrive. I can’t recall what the prepared aubergine dish I found in the local convenience store was called although I think I’d recognise it. And The Times publishes three old, odd words a day, some of which I cherish enough to put on a list in my notebook – only last week, I got sidetracked and I can only remember of the word I wanted to keep that it was of old French derivation, began with “a” and was something to do with stonemasonry. I haven’t quite the gall to ring the stonemason’s helpline – yet – but the actor is Timothy Dalton, the smoked aubergine is baba ganoush, and under the rules of yesteryear, I would write to the compiler of the list of old words, secure in the knowledge that she would eventually get my letter. Sadly, I am no longer sure this applies.
I first saw Judy Parfitt (Sister Monica Jo in Midwives) in Villette (1970), I’d seen her in all sorts of things down the years and I finally met her in the corridor of a now defunct radio station 30 years later. I was in Park Lane when I last saw her aboard a bus. She waved – and called me by name. I wrote to her care of her agent. Not even an acknowledgement. I wrote appreciative to the Sunday Times blonde columnist who began with film and went on to tv. Not a word. According to Linkedin, the woman who compiles the lists of old words has 13 jobs, and I don’t want to bother her. But I want that word. If I could work out the right question to ask the search engine, it could help me. So far I can’t and it can’t.
What the mind mislays and retrieves is fascinating, not just what but why.
I have today recalled who won the middleweight bout against Sugar Ray Robinson in 1952 (Randolph Turpin) and the name of the Philistine city state that was home to Goliath (Gath): it features in one of my favourite Biblical quotes “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in Askelon/lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice/lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.” It is a very long time since that came to mind.
As you get older, words and names float to the surface of the mind, like aquatic feathers, lovely in themselves but often attached to nothing you can see or hear or – crucially – remember. And in the interim, as I get older, words in their pure form, of themselves, whether in sentences, as names, in my ear, on the screen, however I find them, matter more and more. We used to swap beads at school but words weigh less. They are like the paving stones on the road of my existence. I keep looking at them, wondering why this one is chipped and that one smaller, why that one is so odd or appealing. Hence my pleasure in The Times list and in finding some time last week a word I had never heard (insectile) and a word I hadn’t heard for years (raffine with an accent right to left over the e) in a tribute to the late couturier Hubert de Givenchy (I pulled up the writer and wrote appreciatively.)
Words have associations with the past of course, words and intonation, and they recall situations and stories. I was quite shaken when the fairy godmother (Estelle Winwood, long gone to glory) spoke caressingly and playfully of words in The Glass Slipper (1954) – I thought that was unique to my mother. But since she took me to the film, we included those favourites in our shared vocabulary.
Only last week when Snowdrop wrote to say (among other things) that his SO (significant other) was working too hard and he hoped he wouldn’t push it to collapse, did I recall Ma pronouncing its “collops” – emphasis on the first syllable – to take the sting out of it. Like dang-eroos for dangerous – so I was warned off, but lightly. Wilful mispronunciation, wonderful words.