I was catching up in my commonplace this week and came upon this passage from Gilead about one of my favorite words to overuse...
"In writing this, I notice that it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word "just." I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed--when it's used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a think existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity of lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me in the moment. There is something real signified by the word "just" that proper language won't acknowledge. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story."
-- from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
Besides being a lovely reflection on the simple beauties of life and a careful consideration of the craft of writing, it reminded me of another passage I read this week with the kids in Madam How and Lady Why, which was both extraordinarily funny and wise:
"What is that coming down the hill?
"Oh, only some chalk-carts.
"Only some chalk-carts? It seems to me that these chalk-carts are the very things we want; that if we follow them far enough--I do not mean with our feet along the public road, but with our thoughts along a road which, I am sorry to say, the public do not yet know much about--we shall come to a cave, and understand how a cave is made. Meanwhile, do not be in a hurry to say, 'Only a chalk-cart,' or only a mouse, or only a dead leaf. Chalk-carts, like mice, and dead leaves, and most other matters in the universe are very curious and odd things in the eyes of wise and reasonable people. Whenever I hear young men saying 'only' this and 'only' that, I begin to suspect them of belonging, not to the noble army of sages--much less to the most noble army of martyrs,--but to the ignoble army of noodles, who think nothing interesting or important but dinners, and balls, and races, and back-biting their neighbours; and I should be sorry to see you enlisting in that regiment when you grow up. But think--are not chalk-carts very odd and curious things? I think they are. To my mind, it is a curious question how men ever thought of inventing wheels; and, again, when they first thought of it. It is a curious question, too, how men ever found out that they could make horses work for them, and so began to tame them, instead of eating them, and a curious question (which I think we shall never get answered) when the first horse-tamer lived, and in what country. And a very curious, and, to me, a beautiful sight it is, to see those two noble horses obeying that little boy, whom they could kill with a single kick."
-- from Kinglsey's Madam How and Lady Why
Obviously, these two selections are talking about different things: one refers to a word that emphasizes the words around it (until it gets overused and loses its effect) and the other refers to a word which de-emphasizes. Similarly, though, these examples speak to the power of a single simple word to heighten or minimize a point. They both speak to the importance of language.
What struck me, however, was that only and just can mean both the same thing and the exact opposite: "Only a chalk-cart" and "just a chalk-cart" mean the same thing. But in the Gilead-ic (can that be a word?) sense, just works in another way entirely.
I'm not going anywhere special with this except to say that reading multiple books at once forges all these small, unexpected connections. I never thought my fourth grader's earth science text and my Lenten novel would have anything in common!
And I certainly never thought my fourth grader's earth science text would get me thinking about minute linguistic distinctions. But it did, partly because it's a living book and has that capacity, and partly because when you are a literature-lover, you can't help but pull out the literary bits to fawn over. That's part of the Science of Relations too. :)
I'll be taking a break from posting for the Triduum, so I wish you a blessed time and will be back here on the blog next week! (In the meantime, you can probably find me sharing snippets of Holy Week and Easter on Instagram. ;))