Friday, November 17, 2006

A city is good for the brain because it is so clearly impossible to know what's going on. In a small town, I might also miss vast regions of going-on-ness, but people having similar styles and there not being very many of them could fool me into feeling knowing.

Much good stuff is happening, some bad stuff, tons in the grey and fertile middle, and in all those categories, much that I am not even qualified to see, whether I'm looking or not.

Maxine Hong Kingston writes in an essay about running into her aunt in Chinatown. Her aunt worked at one of the hotels as a maid, and Kingston asked about her salary. Having heard how low it was, she assumed it was some obscure hotel, but upon asking found that no, it was one of the world-famous glamorous ones.

She was curious if her aunt knew the word "maid," her job name in English. She said it and her aunt didn't even hear it. Kingston writes, if you don't know the word, you don't hear the word.

The city for me is rich in things like that. I don't know, so I don't hear, see, feel, smell, taste, not having been prepared.

The Kingston essay was in a book of essays about language. I read it because I was hanging out in the 400's at the library, 400's being language, and just a touch of folklore, in the Dewey Decimal system used in United States public libraries.

At that same time, I was reading a book that listed British usage--different words and words used different in Britain. One was "yonks," meaning a long time.

Most British series that are aired on PBS are filled with characters who use RP, received pronunciation, also called, over there, speaking posh. Most people in the UK don't speak that way.

In one of the rare series where people speak non-posh, the one about a housewife who solves mysteries that are serious but aren't murder (an interesting choice) I heard a character, a few days after my adventures in the 400's, say to another character, "I haven't seen you in yonks." A long time. Kingston is right. If I hadn't read the word lately, I wouldn't have heard it.