Self-Taught: Monitoring The Vocab Stockpile



Will Self & the Defenestration of Crypto-Lexicographical Codswallop

“And on The Guardian pedestal these words appear,

My name is Will Self, king of kings:

Look on my words, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Will-ymandias – by the Second Coming of Percy Bysshe Shelley

       You’ve got to love this guy. He’s a hard act to follow and even harder to precede, but  imagined in the parlance of the Self himself, the compliment might instead go something like: having an enduring affection for this goy is a sine qua non. More than likely, though, his choice of words would be dripping with English sang froid on account of the scalpel he incises with when surgically he writes. Let’s face it, Self has more ways of saying essentially the same thing as the Jews have for Yahweh and the Muslims for Allah. Even at the ripened age of 50-sum, the boy’s got game. Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster could not conspire to keep Will Self’s hand out of the alphabetic fire. Yip, this guy’s diction leaves me for dead, in a most edifying manner.

There, I hoodwinked you. But before I venture further into the murky world of words, I must digress without remonstrating the anterior cruciate of my eclectic somnabulance too much (now that is just piffle!). Hoodwink – seems straightforward enough in its etymology. Enter the flux capacitor: you’re temporally regressed to Paris in Anno Domini 1474, to a squalid, whoring flagellum that wriggled into architectural being just inside La Porte De Clignancourt. In this fleapit addendum of the damned, where harlots cling to the mortified remains of last year’s brood, where charlatans hustle in dank passages, and jongleurs in colourful tights hold street court with acts that are the forerunner to the Edinburgh Fringe, the Capuchin hoods of the medieval geezer conceal a knowing signal of the eye. The hoodwinked do not even know they have been hoodwinked because the hood covers the sly wink.

So anyway, de toute façon, I’m sitting there outside a bar in a small town by a lake in the central highlands of Burma (or Myanmar, as they having been insisting and we have been ignoring in favour of colonial revivification since 1989), as you do. This hotshot photographer from Toronto is sitting on the other side on the garrulous but very likable female barrister from the self-same city. We fall into talking. I say that someone has been hoodwinked, for reasons i can no longer recall. Thought that was a perfectly normal, legitimate phonetic route to go down, seeing that we were in Burma – sorry, Myanmar – and the clocks were running down to midnight on this the ultimate day of 2015. So, the photographer gasps in disbelief. ‘Hoodwinked?’ Then in that ineffable and slightly irksome big round green fruit North American city sophisticate kind of way, exclaims HOODWINKED? Upping the vocal notches still, he then rants, ‘what the fuck does that mean? Hoodwink? I’ve never heard HOODWINK before. I mean what does that MEAN? The final word attenuating as he chimed it right out of his smoke-free lungs.

I try explaining without making too much of an arse of myself. ‘You know, hoodwink. Means to…hoodwink someone. You know?’

‘What?’ he decries. ‘Like pulling down a hood and winking? I get that part. I get it. But i mean, what does it MEAN?

We scramble for the smart phone, the postmodern arbiter of all things everything. Shit. We’re in Burma, rural Burma – sorry Myanmar. Of fucking course there’s no arbiter to arbitrate this spot of definition-deficiency. Internet is that thing that lives elsewhere. So, scraping the barrel of my temporal gyrus, I make the nueral handshake and soon the synonyms are flowing faster than the Myanmar – sorry Burma – beer from the keg in the kitchen. Dupe; fool; kid; deceive; trick; pull the wool over one’s eyes. Now do you see, Mr Ace Photographer?

Fuck yeah! Why didn’t you say? Hoodwink. Who uses hoodwink? In the middle of Burma? At New Year? Who in their right mind uses hoodwink? I love it. Tell ya…’

He’s in his stride now, regaling me with the story of the Japanese girlfriend who, upon being ditched in favour of Narita Airport and a one-way ticket home to Canada, farewelled him with the unforgettable, but eminently forgivable, line: Go fuck your face!

What does that mean?’ he announces. ‘Go fuck your face?’ I mean, how do you fuck your own face? I’d like to know that.’

‘How do you hood your own wink, for that matter?’, I added for good measure as the countdown commenced to midnight and another year beckoned for those dastardly words. .

Will Self writes as few others scarce can or dare do. He is a curious hybridization of an 80’s under-performing undergrad with a nose for neologistic modernism, and one of those polymathic linguaphiles scattered to the four winds of empire, reluctantly repatriated after partition in 1947. Proust on a Monday, Calvin & Hobbes on a Tuesday, Rumi powdered with Rachmaninoff midweek and a nihilistic dose of Turgenev and Indie-Punk come the weekend.

I’ve just read a piece by him on his tainted blood (not the Soft Cell song). Stopping frequently in the lexicographic lay-by of my limited vocab to consult the map of obscure words and aphorisms, I came across the following: the great pathetic roué, the sooty furlongs, the hypertrophied concrete bunkers, the admiral-tipped bodkins, the no-nonsense veridical Guignol, and most imperious of all, the fictive inscape. If they didn’t exist, you would have to invent them, which of course he did. No, closer to the truth would be to compare Self to a midwife, but not the conventional type, rather the type who does the impregnation before delivering the miracle of birth onto the white space of various media.

For someone who, by his own recurrent admission, whacked his grey cells a bruised shade of purple with opiates and cocaine, it is small wonder that he can fetch words – specializing in the sleepers strewn across our 600,000-strong English lexical canon – quicker than a 2-year old Labrador a stick. The harder they are, the faster they fall. If Adolf Eichmann had been a 7-letter word, Will Self would not have needed Mossad; he would have been camped out on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, book in one hand and rollie in the other, before Eichmann ever set his sights on obscure, little San Carlos De Bariloche.

As pole dancers are made in the villages on North Thailand, so words are formed in the Wernicke’s Area of the temporal lobe. When you fuck this up consistently by hammering the head with drugs, brain acuity can often go by the wayside. But not in the case of our Will. He bucked the trend there, didn’t he? Scag was grist for the mill for him, making la farine plus fin dans sa tête.  You can picture it as a kind of cerebral battle of Monte Casino – Self’s Wernicke’s Area defended viciously by his SchutzStaffel intellect against the Opiate allies besieging him on all sides.

You’ve got to love this guy. He has held out against the forces of globalized democracy, whose prime directive is to make us all say the same shit with diminishing returns from the vocabulary we used to boast. In a world where the outscape is factive and bloody dull to boot, Self’s fictive inscape is a welcome retreat, into a interior hidden kingdom of mountains – like Bhutan squeezed into one’s head – which when you near them turn out to be Will’s vocabulary piled high, still lifting under a process of Selfian orogenesis.

It is these stockpiles of the wording mind that make climbing Will Self such a technical challenge, yet if summitted offer the lucky few a Wittgensteinian view of reality worth every goddamn penny, or if you’re a young Wittgenstein growing up in Vienna, a krone.