Deep Reading, Lizard Feet, and Tough Cookies

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August 30, 2016 by libroshombre


Those immersed in the reading life know an engrossing dance of words and concepts can induced by good writing, and how grating bad writing can be, like when Dorothy Parker wrote in a book review, “There have been times when her sedulously tortuous style, her one-word sentences, and her curiously compounded adjectives, drive me into an irritation that is only to be relieved by kicking and screaming.” Non-book reviewers can always simply stop reading annoying books. But with author’s as regularly delightful as Ms. Parker, the prose is worth savoring enough to look up unfamiliar words, like “sedulous: showing dedication and diligence,” from the Latin “sedulus: painstaking, zealous.”

Patrick O’Brian is another author whose prose is always worth understanding. In his historical novel “The Truelove,” readers encounter a reception at sea in which were served “some little ferrinaceous objects fresh from the galley.” I suspected O’Brian was saying the little objects were hard, but according to the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), “ferrinaceous” means “made from, rich in, or consisting of starch,” from the word “farina,” a grain. Coincidentally, a political limerick I encountered recently included the term, “farraginous,” which the AHD defined as “composed of a variety of substances,” from the Latin “farrago: medley, hodgepodge, mixed grains for animal feed.”

Serious readers enjoy encountering medleys and hodgepodges of unusual and useful words. Oiling my old baseball glove a few weeks ago led to wondering about the origin of neat’s foot oil. Neat’s foot oil’s been supplanted by more sophisticated concoctions, but in my boyhood it was the ointment of choice for glove limbering. Since then I’ve harbored obscure suspicions that neats were akin to newts or lizards and that thousands of tiny feet were being sacrificed on the altar of suppleness.

When I learned that 5.1 million baseball gloves were sold in the U.S. in 2010, these worrisome thoughts arose anew, but my trusty AHD assured me that “neat” is an archaic term for “a cow or other domestic bovine animal,” and neat’s foot oil is “a light yellow oil obtained from the feet and shinbones of cattle, used chiefly to dress leather.” Relieved, I went on to learn from the Online Etymology Dictionary that “neat” comes from the Latin “nitidus: well-favored, elegant, trim.” The bovine use of the word comes from the Proto-Germanic term, “nautum: thing of value.” In the 1540s “neat” meant “clean, free from dirt,” and 1570s it also meant “unadulterated, or straight” as in “I’ll have my whiskey neat, barkeep.” “Neat” came to slangishly mean “very good” in 1934; “neato,” as in “neato torpedo!” was first recorded in 1968.

Deep reading widely entails exposure to new, amazingly precise words, and some widely-read authors with strong vocabularies are incredibly amusing, if you get their gist. Whole websites have been dedicated to the interesting words hilariously employed by master humorist P.G. Wodehouse, such as “embrocation” (pain-relieving liquid rubbed on the body), and “gumboil” (swelling in the mouth near an abscess).

Don’t bother guessing how many verbal gems are lost to speed readers employing skimming and scanning rather than deep, fully immersed reading. As a devotee of scanning library and bookstore shelves, known in bibliographic circles as “browsing,” I appreciate searching quickly for something that I expect to be close by, but there are times when I want to examine things closely. Training one’s brain to focus intently on writing, or “deep reading,” creates the opportunity to glimpse the human experience through other eyes.

Consider the concept of “poetic diction” created by British philosopher and author Owen Barfield. A friend recently loaned me a copy of Barfield’s book, “Poetic Diction,” in which he defined poetic diction as, “When words are selected and arranged in such a way that their meaning either arouses, or is obviously intended to arouse, aesthetic imagination.” Great authors move our imaginations to new realms outside our normal existence. Patrick O’Brian’s words allow me to feel I’m aboard a Napoleonic era sailing ship with characters I consider dear acquaintances. And Wodehouse’s comedies unfailingly elevate my humor with the antics of some hilarious upper crust English buffoons.

The prime ingredients are skilled authors and readers. Accept no phonies, which comes from “fawney: gilt brass rings used by swindlers.”




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