I came across an interesting word in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (Picador, 2007). It appears in the middle of a conversation between an estranged couple, here discussing their son:
‘We talked about it,’ Keith said. ‘But only once.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Not much. And neither did I.’
‘They’re searching the skies.’
‘That’s right,’ he said.
She knew there was something she’d wanted to say all along and it finally seeped into wordable awareness.
‘Has he said anything about this man Bill Lawton?
‘Just once. He wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.’
‘Their mother mentioned this name. I keep forgetting to tell you. First I forget the name. I forget the easy names. Then, when I remember, you’re never around to tell.’
Seeped into wordable awareness is a lovely phrase, and wordable is a curiously rare word, given its straightforward morphology and transparent meaning. It has virtually no presence in large language corpora:
• Corpus of Historical American English (COHA): 0
• Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): 0
• Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE): 1
• News on the Web corpus (NOW): 1
• iWeb: 15
Of the 15 hits on iWeb, a giant corpus of 14 billion words from 22 million web pages, 14 refer to an app name; the sole applicable example is from an OED list of new entries in September 2008. The OED defines wordable simply as ‘capable of being expressed in words’ and dates it to 1890, in the Bismarck Tribune of North Dakota:
The ‘gossip’ is obliged to wait quite a little while before said gossip can form any wordable thing out of the jumble of syllables muttered rapidly by the first gossip.
Falling Man is one of the OED’s three other citations. There’s also this one that I like, from Scientific Monthly in 1938:
It is this want that sends our imagination out in search of ideas not yet wordable.
The line has a poetic quality apparent also in DeLillo’s later description of words as ‘airstreams of shapeless breath, bodies speaking’.
The only other popular dictionaries to define wordable are Wiktionary and the Urban Dictionary. The associated noun wordability is rarer still, especially outside of proper-noun use. Both, predictably, get red squiggles by default in MS Word and WordPress, as does wordable‘s antonym unwordable.
Unwordable, funnily enough, has been around since ~1660, seeming to appear mainly in religious contexts: a synonym of ineffable. It also has enough contemporary presence to appear in Merriam-Webster, which defines it succinctly as ‘inexpressible in words’.
Maybe you’ll find use for these wordable items.
Interesting. I find “wordable” rather awkward, personally; I think “expressible” is better.
I see room for both, since they’re not full synonyms. Expressible can refer to music, painting, gesture, and many other modes of expressions, whereas wordable is for words only: I like its specificity.
Hi Stan. Hope you’re doing well.
I look forward to your Sentence First emails and always enjoy the things that you discuss. You have a writer’s gift for noticing lovely, light touches that are easily missed by a casual reader – and are the difference between a good novel and one that you (jealously) wish you’d written yourself.
Case in point: “wordable awareness”. What a joy! And what a bastard Don DeLillo is for being the one who thought of it instead of me.
Thanks very much, Ken. I haven’t been blogging much these days, but comments from readers and curiosities from authors help nudge me back. DeLillo is someone I’ve read just a few books by but have always enjoyed, and this one had a lot going on in both style and content.
I’m afraid I can’t agree that the usage of this word was well done. Actually, I think it is quite opposite of well done.
In the first place, it’s a very uncommon obscure word. That does not in any way make it a good word. Authors should use common, easily understandable, concretely-definable words whenever possible. Precise words that may be less common should be used only when we want to be more precise, unless the goal is purple prose, which is a terrible goal.
But there is nothing precise about ‘wordable’, and so it has no advantage of being used that can overcome the disadvantage of it not being an easily understood or clear word, which is what the reader wants.
Secondly, usage in this passage is completely not necessary and is redundant. The line could’ve been ended at the word ‘finally’ with an ellipsis after to get the effect of hesitation by the speaker or the speaker not at first knowing what to say. The author is telling us what will happen (in that phrase) and then immediately showing us what does happen in the next line of dialogue, and one of the most cardinal rules of writing is to not tell or show the reader what they already know or will quickly learn on their own.
But that is what this redundancy does. It violates that cardinal rule. Without it being telegraphed the way it is, the reader will use their own ability to instantly and obviously understand that it ‘seeped into wordable awareness’, from reading the next line of dialogue. They do not need to have the next line of dialogue telegraphed to them in such unnecessary clutter, which is actually condescending and an insult to the reader’s intelligence.
I see this as an amateurish rookie mistake.
Redundancies like this disrespect the reader, and writing fiction should be all about the reader experience. The author should remain invisible, non-egoic, and in service to the story rather than in service to an authorial vision that gets away from things being about the reader experience.
This phrase only gets in the way.
I disagree that “wordable” is imprecise, not easily understood, and therefore disadvantaged: quite the contrary. Nor is redundancy an automatic ill: it can allow a writer to exercise style, emphasize a point, play on a theme, or develop an image or a metaphor, among countless other aims. Your phrase “is completely not necessary and is redundant”, for example, may be seen as redundant.
You seem to have a very narrow conception of what literature can and should be and what a writer can and should do. “Authors should use common, easily understandable, concretely-definable words whenever possible” is an especially strange and restrictive notion. If such “rules” of writing were always obeyed, the wonderful variety of literature would be sorely diminished.
And reading is not computation. I would not be inclined to extrapolate so definitively from my reading experience to a chimeric universal “reader experience”. What is “unnecessary clutter” for one may be a pleasing phrase for another, as is the case here. Ending DeLillo’s line at “finally” plus an ellipsis would disimprove it greatly, in my view. The popular and critical reception of his work suggests that far from being an “amateurish rookie”, he in fact knows what he is doing.
Why telling in 353 words what I can tell in but a few?
I am not afraid to agree that the use of this word is well done.
As someone who did not suck the English language from his mother’s milky breast I am even surprised ‘wordable’ is a rare beauty. What an experience!
It was a surprise to me too, Sean. But I’m glad I encountered it and got to wonder at its obscurity.
I just love that this is a word that I think (?) I’ve never heard. And yet it seems so meaningful and useful! Thanks, as always!
My pleasure, Rachael! It seems like the kind of word that we should be encountering more often, but it stays well under the radar.
Great stuff, as always!
Apologies for the non-sequitur – have you posted about the Irish English use of the word ‘but’ at the end of a sentence?
Thank you. I haven’t written about that usage, and it’s not in my variety of Irish English: though would be my default there.
There’s some discussion of sentence-final “but” and where it’s used at Language Hat: Ah’d Miss James Wood But.