Words have been swirling around me lately the way dry leaves eddy in the wind – lifting and swirling high up before falling down; scattering; disappearing; and dropping out of nowhere to nestle in my brain or to tickle me with the desire to use them. Our U3A talk last week was about the vagaries of English spelling; I am reading that delightful novel The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams; and today I solved Wordle in the first try for the first time. The word was found. Now isn’t that a satisfying word: that something that has been lost has now been found; or that a burst of happiness has found me and landed unexpectedly on my shoulder.
“English is a precise language,” my maternal grandfather would admonish me. “There is a word for everything,” he would explain, probably after hearing me uttering yet another Afrikaans word or slang that peppered the then flat nasal Transvaal accent of my youth. Both the accent and the sloppy language use was probably jarring to his ears. Finding some of those ‘words for everything’ is why I enjoy receiving A-word-a-Day in my inbox every single day. It is from that source, for example, that I discovered that the large marble used as a shooter that we grew up calling a ‘goen’ is actually a ‘taw’ in English!
I have encouraged my own children to use language more precisely – easier for them as they grew up in a predominantly English-speaking environment, were schooled in English, and with my own accent modulated by me having spent seventeen years living in Natal. They love words too. We play with them; toss them about; find new uses for them; and we revel in coming across new words from whatever source. What about scurryfunge? This refers to the hasty tidying of one’s house when a last-minute guest is coming to visit. Admit it, we have all had to resort to scurryfunging at one time or another!
I sometimes challenged the pupils in my English classes to get out of their well-worn ruts and find synonyms for everyday words, to delve into the shades of meanings each represented, and then to make sentences with them. Their eyes would roll, yet by turning this into a game not repeated too often, the exercise would become heated and filled with laughter: some words, as valid as they are, simply don’t ‘sound right’ to our ears anymore. Nonetheless, these paths of discovery helped them towards learning how to manipulate language to suit a particular purpose. You can doubtless imagine my joy as I recognised the gradual improvement in their choice of words when I marked their essays.
This, at last, brings me to rip, tear, and rent by way of example: they can all mean severing paper in some way.
To me rip carries the connotation of the severing action being performed with considerable emotion – such as when venting one’s anger or showing vehement disapproval. Rip carries an undertone of violence: Georgina was so disappointed in her poor result that she ripped up her test paper. She may even have gone further and ripped it to shreds. This is far more satisfying than merely crumpling the paper. Mind you, the word rip might also harbour uncontrolled emotion, such as ripping open the paper covering a gift – as young children tend to do, so keen are they to see what is hidden under the wrapping.
By contrast, to tear paper seems to be a more controlled and deliberate act. You might simply want to divide a sheet of paper in half by tearing it instead of cutting it. In order to tear the paper, your pull it apart by force. When seen in a negative sense, if someone tears a document, the act of destruction is a deliberate one as in: Harold tears up any drawing of his that doesn’t meet his specification – no matter how it is praised by others.
Rent is not a word I naturally apply to the perforation of paper; I associate it more readily with material. Yet, rent can also be used to describe the act of tearing.
Don’t get me started on why my copy of a thesaurus is so well thumbed.