It’s the scorching hot end of June, 2017. I’m in Mykonos, Greece, a daytime tourist trap that lights up as soon as it gets dark. I step out of my hotel room for the first time in two days, my tan drained from the bronchitis I may, or may not, have. My body certainly feels depleted, but I’m not sure how much I trust my muddled translation of the hotel doctor’s diagnosis.
Three days earlier, I’d lain on the sharp-cornered sheets of my room’s smaller-than-twin-size bed, fidgeting in a futile attempt to evade my fever. There was a knock on the door and the most barrel-chested man I’d ever seen ducked to enter my room, thermometer grasped in an unnaturally large hand. The verdict came down with the scribbling of his gavel-like hand on a prescription pad: I would be quarantined in my room until I had recovered, suspended from my position as production assistant, and banned from the beachfront film set.
A few times, I ventured out into the midday silence, my sandals slapping pleasantly against the hotel’s marble floors like I imagined the waves must lap the shore in the world outside my room. I would quickly become dizzy and turn around before I made it much past the hotel entrance, returning to a sitcom binge.
Back in bed, not under the covers, I began what would turn out to be a pivotal series of aimless Google searches inspired by boredom, torpor and the loneliness that made my maybe-bronchitis so much worse than any cough could be. I watched a few random music videos on YouTube (“You Belong With Me,” “Wild Thoughts,” “Love Song”), checked my email, took a few personality quizzes (“If You Don’t Get 10/12 On This Quiz Were You Ever Really Emo?”), checked my email again, and eventually found myself on Dictionary.com, perusing the Word of the Day calendar with true, unabashed fascination. I opened a new note on my phone. With weakened thumbs, I typed out the first of many, many, many new words I would learn over the next two years. Ophidian: a snake.
interdigitate: to interlock (fingers)
The next morning I sent my dad a text:
U know how u always look up words u dont know
and then immediately forget them?
i’ve decided to start a list and found an interesting one
interdigitate: to interlock (fingers)
Very cool! Great idea and interesting word. Hayd?
My dad likes to use acronyms of his own invention (both in texts and in verbal communication), challenging his long-suffering children to guess and feeling a disproportionate amount of pride when we surrender, usually with a confused and annoyed look or a single texted question mark. Hayd: How are you doing?
One year and nine months later, sitting in the hallway of my freshman dorm, I accept a FaceTime call from my dad. I lean against the wall and kick my feet out across the ugly red carpet.
“Guess what I’m doing?” My dad says, the severe upward angle of the camera providing me an exceptionally flattering view of his hands, fingers knitted together on the counter. Only the top three inches of his face are visible, one pair of glasses resting on his nose, the other on his head.
“I don’t know, reading the paper I sent you?”
“No. I’m interdigitating. Duh.”
The list of words continued.
tinnitus: ringing or buzzing in the ears
On the very first day of school of my senior year in high school, I foolishly trusted the settings of my bike to have been untampered with, a choice that resulted in my flight over the handlebars and a tear-stricken drive to a hospital in Tarzana.
I remember the moment I realized something was wrong. I remember being trapped under my bike, my face pressed against the asphalt. I remember my chin hitting the ground, the ringing that reverberated through my body as my head bounced back. I remember disentangling myself, running up the steep driveway, the metallic taste of blood and fear and adrenaline in my mouth. I knocked quietly on my parents’ bedroom door, asked my dad if he could come help me because I’d fallen off my bike.
Within moments, he was awake and grabbing his car keys from the kitchen island. He handed me a paper towel to seep up the blood dripping down my neck and told me it would be okay; we’d be at the hospital in no time. It shocked me how calm he was, how quickly he snapped into motion. It shouldn’t have though; everyone in my family knows my dad is the best person to turn to in a crisis, always calm, level-headed, reliable.
We drove to the hospital. I sat in the passenger seat with the roll of paper towels. My body was buzzing, my head throbbing. I felt like a bell wrung early in the morning to wake everyone up with insistent vibrating. The impact reverberated through me. I couldn’t stop shaking.
At the hospital, my dad made jokes, and a nurse kept walking by singing show tunes under her breath. Soon I had four stitches in my chin and a brand-new paper towel. My dad drove me to school that morning, saying he would the following day if I needed, but told me I should get back on my bike. I should be cautious, of course, but shouldn’t let fear stop me from biking to the bus every morning. I’m sure he said this in part so that he wouldn’t have to wake up at 6 a.m. every morning, but, as usual, he was right. That shouldn’t have surprised me either.
I later discovered my brother had “borrowed” my bike (with his own permission), adjusting the seat to accommodate for his height. I can still feel the scar on my chin, and if I think too hard about it or press gently on the healed wound, I can still remember feeling like a bell, my whole body quaking, buzzing from pain and shock.
But there I was, on time to my first period class, the only telltale sign of my eventful morning the stitches freckling my chin and an email from the school nurse in my inbox reading, “Hopefully, we will see you later!”
pluvial: of, pertaining to, or produced by rain; a rainy period
hyetal: of or relating to rain or rainfall
It rains more here than I ever expected. In a single day, the skies above Providence can spill more water than Los Angeles can expect to see in a year, the rain coming down in sheets, tucking the city indoors. I only started college a few months ago, and already I’ve seen more rain than I did in two years in Los Angeles. People talk about the wind, thunderstorms and snow days. In LA, we had fire days, when the nearby mountains turned the sky red and the made air unbreathable.
In Providence, the fall turns the trees red and the rain makes the air clean and crisp, the grey skies like watercolor or stained glass. In the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep and I can’t stop thinking, I close my eyes and listen to the rain, taking deep breaths to slow my racing heart and quiet my humming mind. It will be two months before I am able to sleep through the night, the unfamiliar bed reminding me of everything else that is unfamiliar (which is pretty much everything else).
Whenever I complain of sleep deprivation, my dad asks me if he’s told me about NBS: Noisy Brain Syndrome. Yes, I tell him, he has, many, many times. And every time, he asks again, has he told me about the term he proudly coined, the one that so accurately describes the sleep-preventing clamor of a mind that can’t stop thinking?
Fast forward a few months to the end of spring semester: I sleep more regularly now, but tonight I remain in my hallway, sitting on the floor with the orange peels and empty containers of fruit that my friends had drunkenly eaten before returning to their own rooms. A friend walks by, sees that I’ve stayed in the same position, gazing absently at the wall across from me.
“You okay?” he asks, toothbrush in hand, sliding down the opposite wall to sit across from me.
“Yes,” I tell him, “just thinking.” Just enjoying the relative silence of the hall, letting the soft ambient sounds settle gently around me like dust after the night’s noise.
Sober, I had gone with my friends, who were very much not sober, to an apartment packed with sweaty bodies and the type of bad music that no one actually likes but, for some reason, everyone continues to play at parties. Half-way through the night, my dad FaceTimed me from Los Angeles, passing his phone around the table at a family dinner I was missing. I sat outside in the light rain, trying to hear my sister, my cousin introducing her friends to me, my older brother complaining about his early-onset balding.
I so badly did not want to go back inside after the cool of the night. I shimmied my way through the crowd, found my friends, told them I was leaving. Making my way back through the sea of people, I tried not to hyperventilate, my breathing coming shorter from slight claustrophobia, my foot throbbing where a stiletto had pierced it. We returned to our dorms, sat in the hall and ate fruit. My friends sprawled across the floor in drunken exhaustion and passed my water bottle around to cure their dehydration.
Now, I sit quietly in the debris of the night, thinking. Thinking about my friends, these people I knew nothing about only months before. Thinking about my family, eating together without me, laughing and shouting across the table.
A few years ago, I would have given anything to skip a family dinner, to dodge the jabs thrown by everyone at everyone in the haphazard verbal fist fights that inevitably broke out. But the last time I showed up at my aunt’s house, prepared to duck and cover, the night had been civil, pleasant, enjoyable even. It was Thanksgiving, and my aunt made us go around the table in a circle and say what we were all grateful for. Our group numbered in the double digits, and the process took almost thirty minutes, but Van, one of my siblings, had said they were grateful that “our blended family has finally managed to actually blend,” and nothing could have described the night better.
“Hmm?” I say, snapped back into the present by my friend’s question. “Not thinking about anything in particular, really.”
How to explain the overlapping memories keeping me awake? Over the internal din of my thoughts, I told him about NBS as if it were a real diagnosis.
“You know,” he says, laughing slightly, “You’ve told me this a few times.”
“Oh my god, I’m turning into my daaadd!” I groan, but then add, “I guess there’re worse things to turn into.”
Finally, I stand, feel my way through my darkened room, find my toothbrush, take my makeup off, wash my face, and crawl into bed. The light on the microwave blinks 2:05, and my body aches from the day. Punctured by an occasional drunken laugh or slamming door, the rain washes the night in patterns of sound. I don’t mind the sounds of dorm life; I’m used to the noise of my family, my brother’s footsteps louder than anyone else’s I know, my dad watching crime-dramas late at night to decompress from a day of work. Or, when he works into the early hours of the morning, the sound of whatever movie soundtrack he’s mixing or whoever’s album he is adjusting drift through the ceiling, my room right below his sound engineering studio.
It’s not quite the same at school, but the white noise is comforting, and I find that it is easier to sleep especially when it’s raining. I close my eyes and float toward a shallow sleep, dream of home in strange, incomprehensible bursts that I can’t remember when I wake up early, my natural alarm clock ringing me awake around 7 a.m. In the morning, the streets are deserted, a blank slate on which I can imagine a future of familiarity or, more realistically, of welcome unfamiliarity, like the rain I have been missing for so long in the California dessert.
atavism: reversion to an earlier type; throwback
With my dad’s help, the list has continued to grow for almost two years. I look back through it sometimes, surprised by the appearance of a word I now consider commonplace or reintroduced to one that I have long forgotten. I don’t remember learning most of the words, but there are some that stand out, some that send me careening backward in time. I can tell which words I found and which ones my dad sent me (usually in a text, usually a screenshot of his Google homepage).
littoral: of or relating to the shore of a lake, sea, or ocean
I miss the beach. Some other things taken for granted: open-toed shoes, easily accessible grocery stores, good (strong) coffee sipped slowly until lukewarm, hugs from my dad, and the sleepy, oversaturated feeling left over from hours spent reading and soaking up the sun in my backyard.
sonder: the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries, and inherited craziness
My phone buzzes, disrupting my 9 a.m. lecture. Hiding my phone under my desk, I open a text from my dad to find a new word and a link: http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/
“The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig. Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language—to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.”
nice: pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory
I’m tired of people telling me I’m “nice.” I know it’s supposed to be a compliment but it feels less like a virtue and more like a label, a “mild” sticker slapped carelessly across a jar that may as well be empty. The word is used so much, is such a default descriptor for all those times we just don’t know what else to say — we say “oh, how nice” or, “what a nice day,” or “must be nice…” — that the word doesn’t mean anything anymore. If you repeat a word enough times, it’ll start to feel strange in your mouth, like blueberries suddenly turned to marbles. It makes you realize just how arbitrary language is, how we make and assign meaning based on meaning that we have made and assigned. Not to be nihilistic, but nothing really has inherent meaning; we give things their meanings, and so, as we change, our meanings change.
My dad recently told me that the word nice did not always mean what we think it to mean now. It was not always a filler word, a word repeated so many times that it feels like swallowing a mouthful of marbles. Once again from Dictionary.com:
Nice, it turns out, began as a negative term derived from the Latin nescius meaning “ignorant.” [...] The high value placed on being shy, delicate, and reserved in the late 18th century was instrumental in the amelioration of the term nice.
My dad found this etymologically fascinating, and sent me the Dictionary.com link with a Bitmoji expressing his surprise. I found it interesting, sure, but I wasn’t that surprised; it struck me that the word nice, even in its current definition, often feels like a statement of disregard. Maybe not as harsh as “ignorant,” but certainly not an indication of the opposite. If “nice” is the only word that comes to mind, there must be something passive in what the person is referring to. Pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory: all words to describe something that simply meets expectations, that exists only at the surface level of all that is possible. So unimaginative, the word nice.
So, I’m not surprised by the origins of the word. I’m glad my dad sent me the link, though, because now I have a reason not to like being called nice. Before, I could only accept it as a compliment, nod and smile, be agreeable.
On the phone later that day, my dad asks me if I’d gotten his text. “Yes,” I say, laughing slightly, “You know I did — I responded to it.”
He knew I had seen it, but wanted to talk about it, to hear what I thought. I like that he is interested to know what I think, to learn from me. He jokes with his friends, often when I’m in earshot, telling them I know more about words than they all do combined. My cheeks turn red, I’m embarrassed but I’m not sure why, knowing that my dad is complimenting me, he’s proud of me. When he talks like this in front of my siblings, prompting comments from my brother (“you’re this family’s only hope”) or eye-rolls from my sisters, I make a face at him and ask him to please stop saying that. The comparison is implicit, and I don’t want to carry all this responsibility.
My brother jokes that, out of my six siblings (two half-, three step-, and one full-sibling), I’m the “best,” I’m the “nice one, the smart one.” I cringe, try to shrug the pressure off my shoulders. I hit my brother’s shoulder lightly across the dining room table, tell him that’s not true. We’re at dinner, for someone’s birthday or one of the Jewish holidays we celebrate atheistically. I don’t want to be the good one, the “nice” one. I want to be worthy of description, not just the easy kid no one has to worry about. The squeaky wheel gets the oil and I know I don’t squeak — it’s not that I want to squeak, but I don’t want to be silent.
When I’m told I am “too nice” by yet another (well-meaning) person, I start to wonder if I really am that bland. In the first few months of college, I’m trying to figure out who I want to be, what I want to do. I try not to think about my family, what it means for them that I’m here, in my first year at Brown, my education seeping away my parents’ savings, and for what? Why, I wonder, am I here? I remind myself that I’m here to learn, not to be some paragon of the self-discipline that my siblings claim they do not possess. I’m here to do something, to say something. I’m not here to be an example, I’m here to be a person. I’m not here to be nice. I do not want to fade away into agreeableness. I do not always agree.
sanguine: optimistic or positive, esp. in an apparently bad or difficult situation; a blood-red color
I returned to Los Angeles for a month, a short, warm interval book-ended by Rhode Island winter, rainy and unfamiliar and rife with anticipatory dread of Antarctic cold. I sit in the passenger seat, my friends passing smoothies and stories across the backseat. My phone rings just as it’s my turn to take custody of the $12 glass bottle, half-full and stamped proudly with the words “50 Shades of Green.” I shirk my responsibility and answer the call from my dad.
“Did you get my text?”
“No,” I say with the practiced patience of an often-repeated conversation, “can you just tell me now?”
Silence. A short pause, during which my dad is surely scrolling through his phone to find the text in question, so important that he’s already forgotten its contents. I open the text myself. A screenshot stares back at me, the Googled definition of sanguine: optimistic or positive, esp. in an apparently bad or difficult situation.
“Huh,” my eyebrows knit together in confusion, “I’ve heard that word but I swear it means something different. Blood-colored, I think.”
I can see my dad on the other end of the call: sitting at the long dining room table, both elbows propped on the worn, age-dappled wood; wearing reading glasses (small wire ovals, perhaps, or bright green, snakeskin-patterned squares bought with intentional embarrassment in mind) and a concentrated frown; typing with both thumbs, a habitual posture acquired over hundreds, probably thousands, of Google searches. Someone is shouting in the background, the sound filtering distantly through the phone and the other noises ricocheting across the house.
But my dad doesn’t look up. It requires quite a racket to wrest his attention from whatever has emerged from the depths of Google to answer one of his obscure questions.
“You’re right,” he mutters over what has now become a house-wide conversation, “it does mean bloodred. Interesting — such opposite definitions for the same word.”
So, even though I thought I knew what the word sanguine meant, I open my phone, scroll to the very bottom of our list, and add the word, contradictory definitions mirrored on either side of a semicolon.
prolix: (of speech or writing) using or containing too many words; tediously lengthy
For the past three years, my dad has read almost every single paper I’ve written. Once, having read an essay I wrote on pain in Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton’s poetry, he told me that my argument was successful — it had certainly caused him pain to read. We both agree that editing my assignments is something I am able to do alone and for the most part, I do. I have a tendency to write too much, to get so enthralled in the structure of a single sentence that I become physically unable to continue working on my assignment until I find the perfect word, the best way to phrase my idea. The only person I know who is consistently happy to put up with my pedantic attention to detail is my dad, who spends his days at work dissecting music in much the same way.
“One second,” I say, “let me call you back.” I grab my laptop and, sock-footed, exchange the noise of my dorm (my roommate still refuses to use headphones) for the relative quiet of the hall. People walk by, giving me questioning looks or stopping to say hi to my dad, who has become a recurring character in the scenes that play out on the fourth floor of my freshman dorm.
The FaceTime window pops open on my computer screen, ringtone bubbling out of semi-broken speakers. My dad reads aloud, eye narrowed in concentration. I look at my screen as if it has become a window, allowing me a quick glance into the world I’ve left in Los Angeles. Sometimes I feel like time on the West coast has frozen, that everything is paused while I continue to hurtle through the days. Across thousands of miles and three mismatched hours, my dad still reads my essays, my family still shouts in the background or pokes their head in to say hello, and (perhaps contributing to my tendency to overwrite) I’m still learning new words.
“Are you gonna be over the word limit?” my dad asks.
“Probably,” I say, grinning.