We’re all surrounded by a cloud of vocabulary. The words you know well, that you use daily, float nearby, coming easily to the hand. This is the great barrier to learning a foreign language. Vocabulary is why I’ll never be fluent in Chinese or French; my cloud of French or Chinese nouns and verbs is just too scanty and thin. Pull on one word and the synonyms and allied terms follow. I can make my own annoyingly large English vocabulary spin like a carousel, with attendant wheezy music and yells of childish joy.
But then out beyond your local orbit is the outer limits, the more distant words that see use rarely or never. I know words, for some value of the word ‘know’, that I never use from year to year. I collect them obsessively, words for ceiling molding, louche slang from thriller novels set in the slums of Edinburgh, posh names on Farrow & Ball paint chips, terms from fiber content labels, ingredients in descriptions on menus at ethnic restaurants. But hoarding isn’t enough. Knitters will tell you that the stash of yarn has to be knitted. Because I don’t use them, these words move away, out into the Oort Cloud or beyond into the black matter between galaxies.
Every now and then, I call on one of those distant orbiting words. They zoom in and obediently plop themselves down into a sentence on the page. And then they look at me. I write down the phrase, ‘sally port’ and then eye it dubiously, muttering, ‘Does this mean what I think it means?’ How can I use a word in a sentence if I can’t define it? I can affirm that I’ve never used the term ‘sally port’ before in any of my fiction. I must have skimmed past it in the pages of O’Brian or Forrester or perhaps Sir Walter Scott, long long ago. I last read IVANHOE in my teens. Surely words floating out in the Oort Cloud don’t hang out there that long?
The old-school solution to this kind of dilemma is the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary. I used to have the two-volume set, the one that has a magnifying glass in a little drawer at the top. But it was inconvenient to use. The magnifier didn’t magnify well enough, and using -two- magnifiers is just annoying. These days, Google is where to go! You get not only a good definition, but images. I ask the internet what ‘sally port’ means and, by gum! It means exactly what I thought, a defended small gate into a fortress, the military equivalent of postern gate. The image above is from Edinburgh Castle in Scotland (IVANHOE, you see?), and shows a sally port that is clearly designed for a troop of men to sneak through when the castle is besieged so that they can attack the enemy from behind.
So that’s my minor triumph of the day. I called, and the word came from across time and space, tame as a pup, to feed from my hand.