The right word

The syzygy of camphor and jasmine ...

All of it started with an email received by my editor at a website for which I review movies. This website receives an insane number of hits, something like two million a month, and we thus receive a proportionate number of emails from the literate imbalanced — readers inquiring, for instance, about our opinion as to whether or not the alien invasion depicted in Spielberg's War of the Worlds is "real." (As it happens, space aliens figure into a lot of the, um, less-reasoned communications that we receive. One correspondent wondered if we knew whether aliens were real or had been "created by Hollywood." The logical fallacy employed here — besides the unnamed one in which the opinion of film critics is being sought in a matter having to do with reality — is called, I believe, "begging the question"; I kind of admire the way it cuts through all the bullshit, taking the presence of aliens for granted — we're all adults here, right? — and focuses debate instead on their source: outer space or Industrial Light and Magic? Another correspondent politely requested a list of films in which alien spacecraft could be spotted — not films in which alien craft are depicted, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, but those in which the camera just happens to catch one flying through the sky during filming, such as... I don't know. Nell.)

So to get back to it, my editor at this website received an email critical of the site and, despite what I felt to be ample evidence that its author was deranged, forwarded it to us, his writers. To be fair, that's what he does with emails written by readers facing even more obvious "challenges," to use one calming, antiseptic euphemism, so maybe all of this was intended as a joke from the start. Regardless, I've regretted deleting this email many, many times. The gist of those parts seeming to involve us was that we, the critics, were all a bunch of assholes and snobs who had never been right about a movie on a single occasion, not once, that our writing was absurdly esoteric, and that he, the email's author, rarely understood more than half of the words we used. Although he didn't state it so plainly, I adopted his tone and continued his argument in my imagination by explaining that the point of film criticism was to reveal whether or not any of the cute gals in the picture takes off her top, and if so do you get a good eyeful of her boobs? Is this gal colored or regular? Exactly how cute is she?

But so far as the actual text of the email goes, while I grant the author his point about us being assholes, I assert that the rest of it — or at least those parts not rendered impenetrable by private sexual meanings — is simply untrue. I'll have to move very carefully through this next part, but in truth I sometimes feel that the observations made on the website can be surprisingly un-esoteric, that what is offered there sometimes reads more like the opinion of film buffs than film critics. The complainant's next claim — that the critics deploy too many uncommon words — initially struck me as being hilarious (or 'very funny'), but as the email made the rounds among the staff, I gradually came to suspect that some of the others might agree. This struck me as being funny, too — I imagined one of my fellow critics sighing wearily upon encountering "clergy," "spacious," or "vacuum" in a text and hauling himself up to go get the dictionary off the bathroom floor — but then my editor dropped the bomb: "I blame Euker," he wrote in an email sent to the entire staff.

Mea Culpa It's My Fault

It's not as though I hadn't been warned. Just the week before I had filed a review in which I used the word "proscenia" and my editor made the casual claim, in a return email, that no one knows what that means. Horseshit, I thought, for lack of a better word, and I outrageously called a couple of friends. ("Outrageous" is maybe my favorite word to hear misused, as in the previous sentence. I once saw a man-in-the-street interview on the news in which a Chicago resident, upon learning of that city's criminally unreliable mail delivery, told the reporter, "I'm outrageous!") And although my informal poll showed that my editor was half right — nearly as many of the people I called knew as didn't — my point was that the context in which I had used "proscenia" provided valuable clues to its meaning and that, this being a website I was writing for, any reader who was unfamiliar with the word was also necessarily seated at a computer, online, when they read it: they could look it up.

"Proscenia," incidentally, is the plural of "proscenium," in my context a shortened form of "proscenium arch," the imaginary barrier and physical arch separating the stage from the rest of a theater. I don't remember how the proscenium controversy was put to rest, although I do recall that someone at some point proposed the grotesque solution of using "prosceniums"; even so, I understood pretty well that this was part of the reason that my editor half-jokingly blamed Euker.

I want to interject here that until I landed the job at this website, no one since my middle school P.E. teacher had called me "Euker." Even the high school gym coach didn't: when he called roll it went, "Engel, Erhlich, Erway, Jake, Evans..."

And so the crabby, sex-obsessed reader's email put me in a strange position for the next couple of weeks. Whereas I used to try to write well and use words appropriate to the meaning I wanted to express, I suddenly was second guessing myself all the time. I wondered if I needed to come across as less coherent or deep or something, and how exactly to do that while discussing a Tarkovsky film whose theme was the life of the human soul. Everything I wrote for the website I also scanned for words that "no one knows" — "aloof"? or "can't give a fuck"? — but the truth is that I had no idea who our readers were. The website cultivates a little bit of a flippant style, as though pitched toward a younger, no-bullshit crowd, but then why would a seventeen-year-old skateboarder be reading about Tarkovsky in the first place?

A review that I wrote of a picture titled Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine brought everything to a head. In it I was addressing a perceived weakness in the director's use of metaphor — I know what you're thinking, but camphor is already in the title and the film itself is by a lesser-known figure in new Iranian cinema; it's not The Dukes of Hazzard so why kill myself trying? — and among my examples I wished to use the contrast between the perfume of jasmine and the unpleasant odor of camphor presented in the title. I wrote that the director's use of metaphor was uncertain, "as in the title..."

And now I needed a word meaning 'a pair of related opposites': smell of camphor vs. fragrance of jasmine. I know that word: it's "syzygy." Since even my spellcheck doesn't believe me (it appears with a wavy red underline on the screen), I was pretty sure my editor wouldn't either, and, in truth, I can't recall having used the word before or since myself. You need a wild card tile even to be able to play it in Scrabble. I invested considerable energy in finding an alternative but everything I came up with ("... such as that found in the construction of opposing, though related, symbols comprising the film's title") was even weirder. I checked reference books and pondered the problem overnight, and the next morning I came up with a fail-safe solution. After eliminating the wavy underline by selecting ADD TO DICTIONARY in spellcheck, I emailed the review with a note to my editor attached. I know "syzygy" is kind of out there, it said, but can't think of replacement. Use whatever you want; should mean "pair of related opposites." Thanks!

It literally just this minute occurs to me that I might have written "... as in the title pair of related opposites." But it apparently didn't occur to my editor either. Although reviews are generally posted on the site within twenty-four hours of their receipt, Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine languished in my editor's care for a few days. When it finally did appear, "syzygy" was intact.

A Parchment, Tablet, Etc. that Has Been Written Upon or Inscribed Two or Three Times, the Previous Text or Texts Having Been Imperfectly Erased and Remaining, Therefore, Still Partly Visible

You can't win them all, though. I subsequently lost a battle with this same editor over the use of "louche." And I recently failed to convince a poet that it was "fraught" and not "wrought" that he needed in a poem he'd written (it was; his poem doesn't make sense now). Just the other day, at another job, I was asked to write a line of text describing a painting of a bowl of fruit. The interesting thing about this painting was the background against which the central image of the fruit was set: it was parchment-colored and roughly textured, and it bore markings that made it appear as though it had been inscribed and then erased or painted over many times before.

I know that word: it's "palimpsest." I wrote the text, describing the fruit as being set before a textured palimpsest, but my suggestion was a non-starter and the final copy focused on the fruit instead.

I understand the argument against all of our language's syzygies and palimpsests: no one knows what they mean and so, as a favor to the reader, you replace them with more recognizable words. But the fact is that no other word carries the specific meaning that syzygy or palimpsest does, and when they're replaced, they're necessarily replaced by a definition-length string of words. Is it doing the reader a favor to substitute all those words where a single, specific word will do? Wouldn't you be doing the reader a bigger favor by teaching him the right word instead?

The real reason that no one knows words such as syzygy and palimpsest is that no one ever uses them when they have the chance. Palimpsest isn't "piece" or "lowly" or "strange," by which I mean that it's not a word for which a dozen other words might be used instead. It refers to a single, well-defined thing, one to which no other word precisely refers. Syzygy, surprisingly, has a few meanings — it can also be used as an astronomical term having to do with specific points in an orbit (specifically the moon's orbit), and it can mean 'a group of two feet in Greek and Latin prosody', a definition that, to me, would be just as useful written in another alphabet — but in the context in which I used it in my review, syzygy means just exactly what I wanted to say.

The other day a woman told me that a man had been thrown out of a window. I cringed a little, not because of the unpleasantness of the event, but because this woman, instead of saying "thrown out a window," could have said "defenestrated" instead. I love words, and some are called upon so rarely that I feel like I'm cheating them out of their moment if I don't use them when I can.