Saturday, May 12, 2007

My Acute Case of Lethologica.

As you might expect from someone that likes to read and write, I take a lot of pleasure in words. When I was just a little kid and I wanted to know what a certain word meant, I would usually just ask my parents. Almost invariably I was told to "look it up". I can't tell you how annoying I found that response. I found all kinds of rationale to justify not consulting the dictionary. I didn't feel like getting up. I just wanted to know how people used the word- not the technical definition. Or my folks simply didn't know, and they were attempting to mask their ignorance. The truth is that I was just a contrary child. The last thing I wanted to do was what I was told to do. So my vocabulary remained pretty limited until I got to college, and had no one to tell me the "right" thing to do.

I still remain fairly independent. Some people are born with an orientation that allows them to learn from others' experience. For the most part I have always needed to learn for myself. Maybe that reflects an inherent mistrust of humanity.... and maybe that's not something I need to analyze too deeply. I do know I could be wealthier and healthier if I just accepted conventional wisdom. But that's not my path in life. Yet I have adopted some beneficial habits. I finally did make it a point to look up words in the dictionary. I even underlined the essence of their definitions, and checked them off so I could review them as I searched for the next word. As a result my verbal test scores on the GRE were much higher than when I took the SAT (for whatever that matters). More importantly, I began to cultivate a reception of pleasure from language. I've learned that there are many more insidious addictions available.

Once in awhile I get blindsided by a novel word used in the course of informal conversation. It's almost as if I actually experience a resulting electrical charge that reverberates throughout my brain, and I get a little surge of adrenalin. Such was the case this past Thursday night. My friend was describing one of the models scheduled on the calendar. He used this unfamiliar word, and I asked him for the definition. Instead of telling me to "look it up", he satisfied my immediate curiosity right then and there. But consequently I can't recall it. I know it is a foreign word that I had never heard before. However it's a descriptor for a specific and narrow sensory experience I've thought about often. I'm paraphrasing here, but as far as I can remember- It refers to the signs of one's life as manifested by the shape and marks of the body and/or face.... as if you could read an individual's history through the lines on his/her face. Some people have this quality in great abundance, and others almost appear to be a "blank slate". Examples of historical figures with a lot of it might include Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Harry Dean Stanton and Nancy Reagan.

Well, I have to say that I love the idea that there is a single word to describe this phenomena. But since I want to repeat this word in the future, it really bothers me that I can't regenerate it in my head. Initially I didn't think this would be a problem because I have the phone number of the person who uttered the word. Unfortunately he's not picking up. Luckily he does read this blog, and he'll probably read this and resolve my frustration. But I really don't want to wait for that. It's like being unable to come up with the title for a song you've been involuntarily humming for weeks. I thought I'd be able to (maybe) locate the word via a Google search, but I haven't had any luck with that. Have YOU ever tried to use a reverse dictionary without a precise definition?

*Incidentally, the obscure word "lethologica" refers to my immediate experience.- the condition of not being able to remember a word I want to use.


Blogger Merge Divide said...

Ok. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology (in this case, e-mail), I have the answer.(Thanks JM)

The word he used- "pentimento" is defined as such:

"An underlying image in a painting, as an earlier painting, part of a painting, or original draft, that shows through, usually when the top layer of paint has become transparent with age."

That doesn't EXACTLY match the phenomena I meant to describe, but it is a very creative (and I believe, remarkably apt) application of a fairly obscure word. Substitute the word "body" for "painting", and it does the job rather well.

5:04 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

It sounds a lot like physiognomy (physiognomie in French), thought to be first used by the Greeks, also studied by the Chinese. Particularly interesting to me, being a former math major, was that the father of physiognomics is thought to be Pythagorus. Physiognomics is a theory based upon the idea that the study and judgement of a person's outer appearance, primarily the face, may give insights into their character or personality. The term physiognomy is also used to refer to the general appearance of a person, object, or terrain, without reference to its underlying or scientific characteristics.
Source: wikipedia. Lots of other information is available online.

Another good word, not directly relaled, but interesting nonetheless, is "visemes", in which facial expressions are used for visual speech synthesis. This allows two people speaking different languages to commumicate.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous jefg said...

I wonder if there is a word for age-induced lethologica, especially when the word is a name. I've got it, and I don't like it. I've never been good at either using multi-syllabic words, or names, but the condition seems to have advanced with age. Thank goodness for the internet.

As I had mentioned earlier, I was struck by the repeated use of certain "obscure" words in today's fiction, when more common words not only would have fit, but perhaps made more sense. Sometimes wonder if people write with a an online Thesauras opened in the upper right corner...not that it's a bad thing.

Lastly, your parents telling you to "look it up" was undoubtedly done to spur you to learn for yourself. (OK, perhaps 10% of the time they had no idea and were bluffing). Little did they know it would take more than a decade to finally sink in.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Thanks for the info.


"age-associated memory impairment (AAMI): The mild disturbance in memory function that occurs normally with aging; benign senescent forgetfulness. Such lapses in memory are lately humorously referred to as representing "a senior moment".

-from the webpage at

Welcome to authentic seniority. At least it's benign!

11:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an entertaining disease for a kid to have. It has to be like living with a crossword puzzle. JM

2:45 AM  

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