Wednesday, 18 April 2012


On the way to the British Library to lead a workshop on Exploring English with West Hatch High School I was thinking about words that seem to be lacking in English, since there are situations for which we need to string together a not very satisfactory sentence. For example, when two people are walking towards each other, change direction to avoid bumping into each other, realise that they are set on a new collision course, smile, get flustered, and make placatory gestures. Somewhere in the back of my mind there is an idea that some European languages have one word for this.

I came across a website which posts a few of these missing words: It has some nice examples. The one that has remained with me is ‘l’appel du vide’, French for ‘the call of the void’, the desire to leap, to one’s doom, into empty spaces – for which I thought ‘vertigo’ filled the bill. But checking on ‘vertigo’ in the OED I find that it actually means the state of giddiness in one’s head. And thinking further about it I realised that I had been assuming that ‘vertigo’ meant both ‘fear of voids’ and ‘the lure of the void’, which are essentially opposites – the desire to move from the void, and the desire move towards the void.

‘Vertiginous’ does at least mean ‘capable of inducing vertigo’, so a favourite phrase ‘vertiginous heights’ is still OK. Alternatively I can assume that the meaning of vertigo has effectively changed to what I thought it meant; this would be taking the ‘Humpty Dumpty defence’, that a word means what I want it to mean. As HD, of course, knew a thing or two about vertigo, I feel I am on safe ground here. Or not. 

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