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Verbal Edge: Borges & Buckley

Friday, 23 March, 2012

There’s a plethora of fine words in Up in the Air by Walter Kirn. The main character, Ryan Bingham, expands his vocabulary with words from the Verbal Edge cassette tapes as he flies around the US. Lots of great words, too, in Buckley: The Right Word. The late William F. Buckley was a marvellous interviewer and one of the most moving parts of the book is an interview he conducted in Buenos Aires in 1997, during the reign of the junta, with the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. At one point, Borges said that he found English “a far finer language” than Spanish and Buckley asked “Why?”

Borges Borges: There are many reasons. Firstly, English is both a Germanic and a Latin language, those two registers. For any idea you take, you have two words. Those words do not mean exactly the same. For example, if I say “regal,” it’s not exactly the same thing as saying “kingly”. Or if I say “fraternal,” it’s not saying the same as “brotherly”; then there is “dark” and “obscure”. Those words are different. It would make all the difference — speaking, for example, of the Holy Spirit — it would make all the difference in the world in a poem if I wrote about the Holy Spirit or I wrote “the Holy Ghost,” since “ghost” is a fine, dark Saxon word, while “spirit” is a light Latin word. And then there is another reason. And the reason is that I think that of all languages, English is the most physical. You can, for example, say “He loomed over.” You can’t very well say that in Spanish.

Buckley: Asomo?
Borges: No; they’re not exactly the same. And then, in English, you can do almost anything with verbs and prepositions. For example, to “laugh off,” to “dream away.” Those things can’t be said in Spanish. To “live down” something, to “live up to” something. I suppose they can be said in German, although my German really isn’t that good. I taught myself German for the sake of reading Schopenhauer in the original text. That was way back in 1916.

Reading this is, to use a typical Buckley word, “saprophytic“, which means obtaining nourishment osmotically from dead matter. Verbal Edge!


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