Of lunatics and vocabulary

I recently finished reading Rebecca West’s classic 1940 tome Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, chronicling her travels through what was then Yugoslavia along with pretty much everything she learned about the history of that region. There are many, many things I could comment on in that book, and maybe I will in the coming days, but one thing I find sticking with me is her distinction between “idiots” and “lunatics.” When West learns that the King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated and reacts with horror, her nurse assumes she must have known the man personally. West comments:

Her question made me remember that the word “idiot” comes from a Greek root meaning private person. Idiocy is the female defect: intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain. It is no worse than the male defect, which is lunacy: they are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.

I could observe that the last eighty years have brought us to the point where women are as apt to be lunatics as men, and where the prevalence and penetration of public media into daily life makes it difficult for anyone to be an idiot, however hard they may try: think of the elderly shut-in who does little all day but watch television and thus has an opinion on every damned thing that happens in the world. A hundred years ago she would have been an idiot; now she is, at best, a kind of lunato-idiot hybrid, kept from full lunacy by her incapacity for action. But set that aside.

What’s really interesting to me about this distinction is simply that West makes it. Here are two words apt to be used almost interchangeably by way of dismissing their object, which become, thanks to this combination of etymology and poetry, useful tools for distinguishing among similar concepts, yet endowed with the power of metaphor to prevent those distinctions from growing too narrow. What words ought to be, I think. Much later in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon West observes that women’s idiocy has often been the only thing to save civilization from men’s lunacy, and the words are both shorthand and illustration, at once zipping up an argument and unpacking it. Beautiful.

This reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is the interchangeability of all the various words we have to praise a thing, the words we trot out when “good” isn’t enough. All come from different roots, and considered etymologically ought surely to mean different things, or at least to shade meaning differently. Excellent is fairly clinical: to excel, to exceed, to stand outside the usual and the expected. Wonderful ought to mean full of wonders, a thing to be wondered at, a mystery. Fantastic suggests fantasy, a thing that surely cannot be real. Fabulous also suggests untruth, but more pointedly: a fabulist is a liar. A thing truly awesome ought to bring us to our knees in an attitude almost of worship. And so on.

I won’t posit some golden age in which everyone used every available word to mean a different and precise thing (I’m not a lunatic, you know), though old books do give a glimpse of their original meanings. My annoyance is simply that all these words, used all these ways, could give speech and writing a complex and delicate texture, provoke contemplation, enliven discourse, what have you. They needn’t (shouldn’t) be used literally but metaphorically, with an awareness of the idea lurking in the shadows. Instead they all just mean “double plus good.” And that’s — well, it ain’t super.

It isn’t as if the English language is contracting. On the contrary, it has more words than at any time in its history, and we keep inventing new ones all the time. But it occurs to me that most of our neologisms are mere names, handles that allow us to pick up some new thing or idea and make use of it. (See, for example, Merriam-Webster’s list for 2021.) They are largely products of technological and scientific innovation. They’re black-and-white, either-or words; they are grasping and controlling words. They have their uses. What I’m bemoaning above is a loss breadth: of descriptive power, imaginative reach, the ability of words to connect disparate ideas, to draw us out rather than only to nail things down. Metaphor. Color. Instead we say, I like the thing, I don’t like the thing; what else, our carelessness implies, matters?

I might say that our expanding vocabulary gives us more and finer pens, but that we’re muddying our palette. The result is a finely outlined but increasingly colorless world. And that is, as Rebecca West reminds me, a world of lunatics.