A Word Is a Terrible Thing to Lose | CAI

A Word Is a Terrible Thing to Lose

Jan 5, 2021

Credit Liz Lerner

I think I am starting to forget words; well, perhaps not so much forget as to have trouble retrieving them. I might be more worried about this but for the fact that my mother, her mind still otherwise functioning perfectly at the age of 92, always forgot or misremembered words throughout her life.

The words I forget or have trouble remembering are largely proper nouns, which, I recently read somewhere, are stored in a separate part of the brain, or at least stored by a process distinct from other memory processes. This loss of proper nouns joins another loss of several years now, namely, the ability to remember dreams, even vivid ones, upon waking. At most I have a memory of a strong emotion – lust, anger, fear -  but nothing specific to attach it to,

One of the late great poems of William Butler Yeats is called “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” In the poem Yeats bemoans the fact that, in old age, the great themes that he explored in his poetry have deserted him. If my circus animals are deserting me, it will not be themes, or causes, or beliefs, or passions, or even loves that leave me, but words. This is in a sense a greater loss, not because I’m a writer, because words are the vessels, the semiotic embodiments of that wonderful, half-made, half-given world of human experience that we call life.

Just the other day I could not think of the name of a common card game, one that I have only played a few times, but which has a rich cultural lore attached to it. I knew that the word for the game I was trying to remember started with a “c”. Oddly, I found I could remember all of the visual details about it – it uses a board on which there are lines of holes and pegs to go in them - but not the name. When I finally did get it, coming at it sideways or indirectly, as one must, allowing the word to enter one’s consciousness rather than trying to track it down – once I remembered it, it seemed to me that “cribbage,“ – for that was the word – was a wonderful thing, both as a word and as a signifier. It has that delightful terse Anglo-Saxon scrunching together of consonants, an inherent short-handedness that makes it impossible to say the word slowly. The sound of it – cribbage – is like a short growl recalling the contrariness if not the curmudgeonly nature of those who stereotypically play it: old men in woolen caps, wearing long-sleeved Guernseys and vests, with protruding chins, white stubbly beards, rheumy eyes, smoking pipes over small bowls of haggis, perhaps, and of course, a dram of single-malt.

And beyond that, once I had the word, it seemed, like the game itself, a marvelous human invention and achievement, something which, through the use of a few simple objects and rules had created something that might keep the mind happily, if tacitly, occupied for hours on  damp, rainy, afternoons.

And if such a simple thing, such a concrete specific word as “cribbage,” can be so wonderful, how much more wonderful is it to write, to play music, to read a great book – say, Tolstoy’s Family Happiness – to prepare and share good food, to visit and talk with friends, to learn a new language, to dance, to see one’s child grow and develop into a person, to defend what one believes is truly good, to walk beside the ocean’s edge during storms and in stretches of deep calm? One must put down the words for all these things while one still possesses them, for they are the keys to one’s life.