The Big Read Blog (Archive)

What?s the Point of Having a Big Read If There?s No One To Share It With?

July 31, 2008
Washington, DC

An Essay on Vocabulary, Complete With a Quixotic Proposal

All new-learned words are only usefully imperfect synonyms for the ones we already know. I went looking for a Big Ride idea this morning, and came away with two new words too good not to share. I can't keep these new rookies in my vocabulary on the bench a moment longer: they are "centroid" and "barycenter."

Map illustration

The point on earth closest to everyone in the world on average is in the northern part of South Asia, with a mean distance of 5,000 kilometers (3,000 mi). Its antipodal point is correspondingly the farthest point from everyone on earth, and is located in the South Pacific near Easter Island, with a mean distance of 15,000 kilometers (9,300 mi). In America, the point on earth closest to everyone on average is in Phelps County Missouri.   (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centroid)

Rock your world, don't they? No? Of course not. Only a few words can take your breath away even divorced from their meanings. Words like "gossamer," maybe, or "zephyr," and who can say but even those two sounded unspectacular before you first heard them defined? (Interesting that "breath," the irreducible atom of language, is precisely what they have in common -- "zephyr" a breath of wind from the west, gossamer a spider's web, that fragile latticework only a breath from collapse.)

Self-evidently lovely it's not, but "centroid" means the exact center of any planar surface, where it could theoretically teeter on a pin's point. I once wrote an essay called "How Many Angels" for the anthology My California, in which I went looking for the centroid of Los Angeles County, only I didn't know enough to call it that. Instead I laboriously called it the point "from which you can't get any farther away from one border without getting closer to another."

Where was "centroid" when I needed it? Hiding in Wikipedia next to "barycenter," apparently. No dictionary I've found takes the trouble to differentiate them, and why should it? Geometers will know, and who else cares? Near as I can tell, though, a barycenter belongs to astronomy as well as geometry, and frequently describes the point between two heavenly bodies around which they orbit each other. In short, a barycenter sounds like a centroid, only in three dimensions instead of two.

You've been very patient reading all this, and may even deserve to know why I brought any of it up. As you might expect with the Big Ride looming, I spend more time than ever looking at maps. Last night I remembered that the exact geometric center of America ? the centroid, I now realize -- is in Kansas. I looked it up this morning and not only learned the word "centroid," but found out that America's hovers somewhere around Meades Ranch in Smith County, Kansas. Cartographers and xenophobes, take note: In the lower 48, there's more of America surrounding you in Smith County than anywhere else you could possibly go.

Unlike the American centroid, or barycenter, or the geodetic base point (these geomancers love their synonyms even more than I do mine), the center of American population gets around. As William Hurt says in Broadcast News of the line between news and entertainment, "They keep moving the little sucker, don't they?" As relocators and immigrants have gravitated gradually Southwestward, the center of American population has doggedly followed them, till now it catches its breath somewhere in Phelps County, Missouri.

Where I'm going with all this, aside from Smith and Phelps counties, as soon as I can manage it, is that most education gives vocabulary a bad name. It might seem counterintuitive that anything could give vocabulary a bad name, since vocabulary is in the business of giving things good names, or at least memorable ones. But say "vocabulary" and all those itchy memories come flushing back: flashcards, worksheets, Use it in a sentence . Gaaah!

And yet vocabulary should be the most beautiful of all subjects, because without a good one the world is unreadable. All the Big Read writers have sizable vocabularies, with Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald probably tied for the biggest. Hemingway's is the most selective, and Steinbeck and Twain's are the most varied -- owing to their prodigious knowledge of nature and profanity, respectively.

So if I could ask Microsoft for one favor ? other than massive infusions of Big Read funding, now and in perpetuity -- it would be the addition of a dedicated "definition" tab on their toolbars, instead of the current "dictionary" function, which you have to root around for under "research." Similar shortcuts in Gmail and other email programs would encourage correspondents to get sesquipedalian without fear of puzzling each other. One of the impediments to a healthy, versatile vocabulary -- and maybe the only drawback to having one -- is the increasing loneliness of it. What's the point of having a big one if there's no one to share it with? Just think if vocabulary enlargement were only a click away. So a hyperlinked dictionary in every document, on every desktop, is my fondest wish.

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