I love words. Always have. As a kid, I loved to do the Jumble in the newspaper every morning, and my mother, sister, and I would play Scrabble whenever we had a chance. (Those were the days you played on an actual printed game board!) Even today, I have three or four Scrabble or Words with Friends games going at once and I do crossword puzzles incessantly. I just generally love word games. (Word Warp is my latest obsession, but it’s really not that challenging and is aggravating my carpal tunnel syndrome.)
I like words on their own—before they are lined up and carefully crafted into beautiful poetry or captivating fiction or thoughtful memoir. I confess, though: I play favorites. My favorites these days are "erstwhile," "penultimate," and "extra-canonical." Erstwhile makes the current list because, although it means “of things past” or “former,” I’ve always imagined that it has a bit of earnestness to it—former, yes, but with some eagerness, some desire to please. Ridiculous, I admit, but it gives me a bit of pleasure whenever I have the occasion to use it.
Penultimate is another word I can picture in action. “Next to last.” I see penultimate lined up, second to the end, leaning forward, trying not to be last. Penultimate is a wonderful word to have at my disposal. As a university press publisher, I’ve been able to see many multivolume series come to fruition, and there can be a certain sadness when the penultimate volume is released, for we know the next one will be the last. Or, alternatively, much joy knowing we are that much closer to completion!
Extra-canonical: "not included in the canon of Scripture. " I love this word! And I’ve had many occasions to use it since our announcement of the new JPS three-volume set, Outside the Bible, a collection of the works not included in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), publishing in fall 2013. This set is an incredible, once-in-a-century compilation of translations and commentary about works that did not make the cut: what they are, what they mean, and why they weren’t included in the Bible. As I write this, it is the third day of Hanukkah—and I'm wondering why weren’t the books of the Maccabees included in the Bible? Or Jubilees, or the Psalms of Solomon? Or Susanna? Alas, this is fodder for a future blog . . .
Of course, at the end of the day, words are best strung together, preferably with great precision and thought. And while I may find them entertaining on their own, their true worth is what they bring to the group. Consider this advice from Ted Kooser in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual: “[T]he work of writing the poem can’t be hurried. Every word must be selected for its appropriateness to the task at hand, just as each part of a machine must contribute to its effectiveness.” He goes on to give an example of a poem by Lorine Niedecker in which heleaves out a word. Needless to say, the meaning was altered “The task is to choose a word that brings the most to the poem, that enlivens or animates it . . . a word that is not just a verb but that amplifies or expands upon what the poem seems to be aiming for.”
Writing poetry or prose is much tougher than playing Scrabble or doing a crossword. I leave those more daunting tasks to our authors, with great appreciation for each and every word chosen and with the assurance that here at UNP, we will treat their words with great care and diligence. And that’s my last word on that subject!