Wednesday 31 December 2014

The Words of 1914

As 2014 puts on his hat and overcoat and prepares to trudge off down the foggy lane to Lethe, it is usual for a blog like this to list its Words of 2014. There's usually something technological and a couple of portmanteaus that will never survive: Bralking! It's breathing and walking at the same time! Trampomeerschauming! It's bouncing on a trampoline whilst smoking a pipe! The problem with such lists is exactly the same as the Problem of Autobiography.

Pretty much every autobiography I've ever read goes really flat towards the end. And there's a good reason for this: the author doesn't know where the narrative is going any more. He doesn't know how it ends. Or, to put it another way, every autobiography should end like this:

And that, dear reader, is how I came to be sitting at this desk writing the words The End.

The early chapters, the childhood section is easy, because, after all these years, we know what's important. So we know what to describe. The first time Eric Clapton picked up a guitar was a Big Moment. The first time Gordon Ramsay picked up a guitar was not a big moment. He put it down again and moved on. But the first time Eric Clapton cooked an omelette was Not Important.

They, Eric and Gordon, know that now, but they didn't necessarily know it then. It is only What Happens Next that makes things important. And that's why autobiographies collapse in the last chapter. Because the writer doesn't know how he will die.

It's also a sobering thought to think that yesterday might have been the most important day of your life, you just don't know it yet.

All of which is a very long way round of recommending this article on all the new words that were first recorded in 1914. Blurb, Chunnel, air-raid, nit-wit, backpack, sociopath, postmodern. That's about as up-to-date as I like to be.

Mind you, the word debag hasn't actually fallen out of use. Or at least it hadn't at my school.

And that, dear reader, is how I came to write the words The


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  2. I know one autobiography that solved the problem. It's called "How to Cook A Rogue Elephant: The Recollections and Recipes of Peter van Rensselaer Livingston", and it ends in a brief postscript purportedly written by his wife, about how at the end of a day he sharpened a bunch of pencils and then went to bed, and died in his sleep just before midnight. The plausibility of this is somewhat diminished by being followed immediately by him commenting that he will have to write another book because you can't have half an impalpable drop of reminiscence.