Everyone has a private terror—often abetted by a checkered family medical history or having witnessed the torment of a loved one—of being struck with some particular affliction. For some, it's the ravages of a slow and painful cancer. For others, it's being caught in a freak accident that renders them quadriplegic in their prime. For me, it's the fear of surviving a stroke that blasts away tracts of neural tissue in the left hemisphere of my brain, leaving me with profound aphasia.
As usual, the degree of fear is based on a calculus of probability and of loss. In my case, there is the specter of probability: My father suffered a fatal stroke in his sixties. His own father, unluckier, was bedridden after a stroke in his early forties until another one finished him off a few years later. But it's the prospect of the loss that is overwhelming. How could I, ardent worshipper at the altar of language, ever cope with being left unable to talk or write fluently about language or anything else? For that matter, would I even be able to think about language? Or think in any meaningful way at all? It's the afflictions that strip you of who you are that seem most unthinkable.
So it was a sense of morbid attraction that led me to Diane Ackerman's newest book One Hundred Names for Love, in which she documents the stroke and subsequent language deficit suffered by her husband, novelist Paul West.
West emerged from his stroke with a near-total obliteration of language—his response to his wife's greeting of "Hi, honey" was to stare at her, "his eyes declaring: What on earth are you driving at?" He could utter a single syllable ("Mem! Mem! Mem, mem, mem!") and was sometimes bewildered that others seemed not to understand him. It's hard to imagine a person—or couple—for whom this turn of events could be more catastrophic. Ackerman describes a pre-stroke marriage whose intimacies were entirely centered on the nimble use of language. The two writers shared a broad and idiosyncratic marital lexicon and the proclivity to launch into impromptu language games. West, we're told, was a man who "had a draper's touch for the unfolding fabric of a sentence, and collected words like rare buttons."
In the end, it was West's dazzling collection of words that provided a way out of muteness.
In talking to some of my less-verbally inclined family members, I've occasionally found myself having to defend the purpose of hoarding an oversized vocabulary. Why, they want to know, does anyone need to know, let alone use, a word like excoriate when criticize will do quite nicely? Why discuss a person's proclivities, when habits or, if you must, tendencies does the trick? Why use obscure words rather than plain ones, other than to imply intellectual superiority? Perhaps some speakers or writers wield a bulky vocabulary as a blunt tool for humiliation. But I suspect that most are driven by the pleasures of being able to dip their brush into a nuanced linguistic palette. I explain to the skeptics that having a collection of seven near-synonyms allows you to pick out just the right one for the occasion—the one with exactly the right connotations, degree of formality or crudeness, the right history of use sticking to it, even the one with the right rhythm, vowels or consonants. If you're using language as paint, why in the world would you want to be limited to just the primary colors?
No doubt, Paul West was also driven by similar pleasures, devoting sprawling acres of neural real estate to his vocabulary. Ultimately this meant that, devastating as the stroke was, there were many preserved pockets left to be unearthed. Oddly, it was often the most obscure words that were easiest to recover. He struggled with words like blanket or bed, or his wife's name Diane, words that you would think over time should have seeped into his genes. Nevertheless, he could recruit words like postillion or tardigrades to get an idea across. This led to some counter-productive interactions with a speech therapist. Since aphasics often produce nonsense words without realizing that they aren't real words, one of the goals of therapy is to give the patient feedback on which words are real. But West would often produce bona fide words that were unknown to the therapist. For example, when shown Raphael's familiar painting of two baby angels propping their heads on their chubby arms, he offered "chair-roo-beem." To which the therapist patiently responded: "No. These are angels, AINGELS." Ackerman had to intervene, explaining that cherubim was a real word.
At times, his speech sent even his verbally-endowed spouse scrambling for a dictionary. When trying to ask her whether she'd received a check as payment for some work done, he resorted to the word spondulicks, which prompted the following exchange:
"What's a spondulick?"
"Really? Truly? Spondulicks?" In my mind's eye, I pictured a spastic duck.
"Yes," he said emphatically.
"Spondulicks. It's British."
Surely he was pulling my leg. I breezed into the library to look it up in an etymological dictionary, where I found this entry:
1856, Amer.Eng. slang, "money, cash," of unknown origin, said to be from Gk. spondylikos, from spondylos, a seashell used as currency (the Gk. word means lit. "vertebra"). Used by Mark Twain and O.Henry and adopted into British English, where it survives despite having died in Amer.Eng.
Partly through the force of his will and partly through his wife's insistence that he remain constantly immersed in a bath of language, West eventually recovered sufficiently to write three books after his stroke, with the help of an assistant. One of these, The Shadow Factory is his own account of his stroke. A brief excerpt illustrates how West was able to leverage his off-kilter language and sense of humor to vivid and appropriately disorienting effect. Here, West describes how the stroke left him with difficulty swallowing liquids, which needed to be thickened into semi-liquid form:
If I were to take a drink from the wrong kind of liquid, I would in all probability aspirate and, having filled my lungs with fluid, choke and die. This unseemly possibility has three stages. The first is pudding, which in no sense imperils you; the next is honey, which puts you in less jeopardy; third is nectar, and finally water, when you are dicing with life and death. If all this sounds mumbo jumbo to an educated audience, it should not. For anyone intending to drink beyond his means, the risk of suffocation is high. For my own part, being on pudding as I was, I was consigned to eat chocolate pudding but shrank from eating the obscene mixture called pudding water, by which a mixture was made of water and thickener until the spoon was standing straight up. Such licentious behavior on the part of English pudding makers may surprise no one, but it may reveal to countless consumers of coffee, tea, and other drinks the perilous condition that they are subjecting themselves to if they drink water that goes down the wrong pipe.
The intimate wordplay between West and Ackerman also eventually resumed, with West fashioning novel terms of endearment as gifts to his wife. The offerings were delightful. Deprived of the usual routes to language, and along with them, the common clichés that many of us struggle to shed, West bestowed on his wife exquisite pet names such as: My Little Bucket of Hair; Commendatore de le Pavane Mistletoe; Dark-Eyed Junco, My Little Bunko; Diligent Apostle of Classic Stanzas. And at one point, the man uttered what has to be the most searingly romantic sentence ever uttered in history, by anyone, in any language:
"You are the hapax legomenon of my life."