Shtick, Pavilion and other great words
On Tuesday, those short listed for the prestigious Man Booker prize gathered in West London with the great and good of the literary establishment. As discussions ensued regarding the merit of the Judges’ decision, Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 prize, was succinct in highlighting that the main prerequisite is that they only be “good writers.”
Last week, Jacobson, who studied English at Cambridge, wrote in The Independent that he simply “wanted to make sentences, not win prizes” Stating that the sentences “were prize enough in themselves.”
Jacobson does indeed create undisputedly great sentences, but also, noticeably, uses great words; for example “shtick,” a word I had never previously encountered, or perhaps never noticed. Thus, not only has the reader been introduced to a beautiful sentence, but also a charming word.
The message “you don’t have to be a writer to appreciate words” is something that the founder of wordsmith.org Anu Garg’s 1 million followers, of which I am one, already take heed of, he tells me.
Each day, Garg e-mails his community of subscribers who reside in over 200 countries, a word of the day, together with the etymology and an example of the word’s use in context.
He provides this service free of charge and has been praised by the New York Times as “the most welcomed most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace.”
Perhaps, what is most fascinating is Garg’s background. He is an immigrant born and raised in Uttar Pradesh in Northern India who later moved to America. He did not begin learning English until the age of 9, in 6th grade, where growing up he learnt the British version and after moving to the United States switched to American English.
Garg, despite his lexicon of words, still considers himself a “lifelong student of the English Language.” Communicating with Garg, I was keen to understand how his Indian roots had influenced, both him and others.
“In India there’s huge competition to succeed. People realize that good education is the key that opens doors to a better life.” This has resulted in India’s growing literacy levels and a burgeoning book market.
I asked Garg of how best to encourage young people, from all social classes in the United Kingdom, to take an interest in words. He replied, rather endearingly that it would “help if we shared the etymology. Once you see words as living beings: words are born, they grow and change, and sometimes they die out, they become much more than just words”.
To explain further:
“When you see that ‘pavilion’ is like a butterfly spreading its wings (from Latin papilio: butterfly) it’s easy to fall in love with words.”
It is apparent that Garg is more than just a purveyor of words; he is fervently enthusiastic and genuinely enthralled by them.
Furthermore, he does not underestimate the significance of words, but rather acknowledges them as valuable tools: “Words are the universal currency of humankind. The better we are with them, the better we can be in anything we do. With the right words we can do what money or power can’t.”
Some, like Jacobsen may prize great sentences, but others, myself included, are simply pleased with a great word.