Stumbling

“If everyone’s social media experience looked like your social media experience I think people would want to be on social media a lot more.”

I’m in therapy. I mean, I’m in my house, same as every other day, but I’m looking at the particular video call window that corresponds to “being in therapy” and my therapist is saying these nice things to me and I’m laughing because my feeds are full of just as much chaos and anxiety as anyone else’s, but she presses on.

“Every time you tell me about some new community or project you found or someone you met online, it sounds fascinating and beautiful and hopeful. That’s…well. That’s not my experience of being online. I had to quit.”

I stop laughing and try to hear what she’s saying—turning it over, weighing it against my experience. Is it true? So many days I feel like I’m purposefully recoiling from the internet at large, erecting sandcastle barricades against an inrushing tide. 

But it is true.

I’ve been changing my relationship to being online.

Some of it is keeping in touch with friends who are fascinated by the same sorts of hybrid creations I am. Friends who build things. Friends in different professional communities. Paying attention when they mention some new discovery or avenue of interest.

Some of it is using an RSS reader to change the cadence and depth of my consumption—pulling away from the quick-hit likes of social media in favor of a space where I can run my thoughts to their logical conclusion (and then sit on them long enough to consider whether or not they’re true).

Some of it is joining small communities who meet regularly to write letters or discuss abolition or cheer each other on throughout the work day.

Some of it is just letting myself wander, link to link, through people’s personal websites and passion projects, seeing what comes up.1

Most people (myself included) stopped using the internet this way years ago. Our footpaths converged around the same 5-10 platforms, each with its own particular manner of communication. I have learned, unintentionally, to code switch every time I craft a new post. It’s exhausting, trying to keep track of all those unspoken rules shaped by years of use.

But I don’t have rules like that on my blog. I turned off stats. There are no comments. No likes. It’s been long enough since I wrote regularly here that I’m not bringing any tonal baggage with me.

Hell, the last time I had a regular personal writing practice online I was eighteen.

A theme of the past year has been trying to disengage from my attachment to what I think other people want or need from me, and to rekindle my working relationship with myself. Changing my relationship to being online hasn’t been linear. I still go on social media. It’s not like it’s become obsolete in my world overnight. But my therapist (as usual) is right. 

Something’s on the move.

1. I spent an afternoon last week dredging up memories of StumbleUpon, a service that flung users around to random sites with the click of a button between 2002 and 2018. It was great! The closest thing I’ve experienced recently was Jenny Odell asking folks on Twitter to share their favorite single serving websites. (LEAF.COM!!!) Not a full replacement for the service, but a delight nonetheless.

The Lexicon

I was in high school when I started my first list of unknown words.

It happened because I was tired of acing vocab quizzes in English class without having to study, and that was happening because I was a precocious kid who read a lot of books and seemed unable to stop adding to her already unwieldy (and often socially alienating) internal dictionary.

So I made a list. And I formatted it like the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency homepage, because it was 2005 and that’s what we did back then.

L U C Y B E L L W O O D ’ S DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO WORDS PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN heliotrope: n. A small, fragrant plant. aspersion: n. An unfavorable or damaging remark; slander. ornery: adj. Stubborn, ill-tempered. amalgam: n. A combination of diverse elements; mixture. solipsism: n. Philosophy stating that the self is the only reality. asinine: adj. Stupid, silly, foolish. metastasize: intr.v. To spread, especially destructively. sere: adj. Withered, dry. inure: v. The grow accustomed to something unpleasant. redolent: adj. 1. Aromatic. 2. Suggestive, reminiscent. lackadaisical: adj. Lacking spirit, life etc. parvenu: n. Someone who has recently become wealthy but lacks the social culture associated with his/her rank. effigy: n. A crude likeness of a hated thing. bindlestiff: n. A hobo or migrant worker. macadam: n. Paving made of compacted, broken stone covered with asphalt or tar. sanguine: adj. 1. Of the color of blood. 2. Cheerful, optimistic. ghat: n. a broad flight of steps leading down to a river. bedizen: v. To adorn or dress gaudily. sesquipedalian: n. A long word. adj. Given to the use of long words, polysyllabic. tintinnabulation: n. The ringing or sounding of bells. spate: n. A sudden rush or flood. recherché: adj. Refined and elegant to an extreme. fraterist: n. One who is compelled to sub against others in public. abreaction: n. The expression of a previously repressed emotion. coloratura: n. Ornate embellishment in vocal music. lascivious: adj. Lustful, lewd. gormandize: v. To eat greedily, gorge. imago: n. 1. An insect in its fully mature sexual state after metamorphosis. 2. Psych. An idealized image, often of a parent, unconsciously carried into adulthood. lascar: n. An East Indian sailor. lanose: adj. Wooly. ineluctable: adj. Unavoidable. in extremis: adv. At the point of death. In grave or extreme circumstances. lenitive: adj. Capable of easing pain or discomfort. penitence: n. A feeling of remorse or regret. penury: n. Extreme poverty. sang-froid: n. Composure. vociferate: v. To cry out, utter vehemently. virago: n. A strident, domineering woman. virgule: n. The official name of the / syombol. obelus: n. Official name of the ÷ symbol. Used by the Greeks to mark passages of text thought to be pointless or stupid. mimp: n. A kiss. obstreperous: adj. Noisy and unruly. obviate: v. To anticipate and prevent. obloquy: n. Abusive language; Condition of disgrace suffered as a result of abuse or vilification. bordello: n. A house of prostitution. boondoggle: n. Pointless, wasteful work. sui generis: adj. Being unique of its kind. recto: n. The right-hand page of a book. sinecure: n. A position that pays well but requires very little work. sine die: adv. Without a future time or date specified, indefinite. sine qua non: n. An essential element. whilom: adv. (Archaic) At a former time, formerly. dudgeon: n. Sullen, angry or indignant mood. pedant: n. One, especially an unimaginative teacher, who reinforces trivial details of learning. One who makes a show of being scholarly. pecuniary: adj. Relating to money. pedagogy: n. The art, profession etc. of teaching. pedagog, -gogue: n. A teacher. au courant: adj. Informed of current affairs, up-to-date. attitudinize: v. To assume an attitude for effect; posture. attenuate: v. To make or become fine or thin; weaken. troth: n. Good faith, fidelity. joie de vivre: n. Lively enjoyment of life. pro tempore: adj. For the time being. autochthonous: adj. Indigenous, native to a particular place. nomenclature: n. A system of names used in an art or science for classification. ucalegon: n. A neighbor whose house is on fire.
(Clicking on this image will open the list as a much more legible Google Doc, if you’re curious.)

I never did anything so organized as quizzing myself on the entries, but when I rediscovered this artefact it turned out I’d learned almost all the words quite naturally in the course of becoming an adult. (Using them in conversation also seems to put less of a damper on my social life these days. Score one for finding your people.)

Anyway, several years ago I found myself jotting down word after word as I tore through Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. Her goshawk’s “breast feathers of vermiculated snow” were just the tip of the lexical iceberg. She deployed technical birding terminology and archaic literary expressions with equal and terrific frequency. I hadn’t read anything involving so many new-to-me words in ages.

So I made a new list. Just a messy thing in the notes app on my phone, not modeled after any particular beloved internet comedy website. And, as the books and years rolled by, I kept adding to it.

Eventually some Twitter conversation prompted me to share a selection of choice entries, but I thought it would be even better to catalogue them all on my own site. There’s now a slightly awkward, plugin-fueled version of that very feature here, but you can also subscribe to this RSS feed and it’ll just update your reader every time I add a new word. (The plugin also adds hover-activated definitions when I use catalogued words anywhere on the site, so that’s fun.)

I’ll warn you right now: I copy my definitions willy-nilly from whatever dictionary I have to hand, but I’m starting to get more deliberate about formatting and I do try and cite where I first encountered the word at the end of each entry.

If all goes according to plan, I can look back on this new list in twenty years and wonder how I ever got by without using the word lambrequin in a sentence every other day.

Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy delighting in these new terms as much as I do.