05 February 2023

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva

It was the 19th of May, 1989. I was doing a part time job as a library assistant. It was, one could, say, a pretty cushy job. A departmental library is used mostly by graduate students of the particular department. There were never more than a half a dozen people in the library. Responsibilities consisted of attending to those rare visitors who checked out a book on the rare occasion, putting back returned books on the shelves and once a year or so going through the bookcases to make sure the books were placed correctly.

Work time, then, was time to do assigned reading and write letters to friends and family (this was the pre-email, pre-whatsapp, pre-almost-everything-now-taken-for-granted era). Occasionally of course a returned book would get my attention and I would browse or, as it happened on that particular day, read it cover to cover.

‘The autobiography of Malcolm X’ (as told to Alex Haley) was gripping. A woman, probably a young graduate student, came by and she would have gone right into the library without receiving my customary ‘Hi,’ except that she stopped by my desk and said ‘hi’ herself.

She smiled and said, ‘do you know it’s his birthday today?’ I did not know. I didn’t know much, even back then. We talked a bit. She went inside. I returned to Malcolm’s story.

And that’s how I learnt the word ‘Aadvaark.’

Malcolm X, who was born Malcolm Little and later became Malik el-Shabbaz, is one of the most prominent figures of the Civil Rights Movement. He was to Martin Luther King (Jr) what Subhash Chandra Bose was to Mahatma Gandhi. King and Gandhi, not surprisingly, are celebrated by those they opposed and if they made any gains it is because Malcolm and Bose, respectively, created space for the so-called ‘moderates’ simply by refusing to varnish the truth or be shortchanged on justice.

It was when he was at the Norfolk Prison Colony that Malcolm decided that he needed to read. Here’s what he said, years later to Haley:

‘I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary -- to study. . . . I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary's pages. I'd never realized so many words existed! . . . Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that 'aardvark' springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.’

Malcolm wrote it all down so he could improve his handwriting, ‘down to the punctuation marks.’ In copying down every word (he surmised that he must have written down around a million words!) and studying the definitions, he acquired an incredible amount of knowledge which is why he said that a dictionary is like a miniature encyclopaedia.

A man once gave a dictionary to his grandson who asked, ‘how many words does it have?’ ‘All of them,’ his grandfather answered. This was after he had told the boy, ‘This book not only knows everything, but it’s the only one that’s never wrong.’ The boy read it as if it were a novel, in alphabetical order. He would later state, ‘it was my first contact with what would be the fundamental book in my destiny as a writer.’

My parents never told me or my brother or my sister the meaning of any word should we ask them. ‘Check the dictionary,’ they would say. And we did. We learnt the meaning of the unfamiliar word and also became familiar with adjacent words and others on the same page that caught our eyes and our curiosity. The Random House Dictionary, a heavy volume, not an abridged or concise version, I was shocked to notice a few years ago, is in tatters. Usage.

Somehow, my recollection is that Malcolm read all the words, from Aardvark to the last letter beginning with Z, which I don’t remember now. Apparently, Aardvark is preceded by ‘A.’ The Oxford English Dictionary divides the letter ‘A’  into a total of 33 senses. The word Aardvark (defined as ‘a medium-sized, nocturnal African mammal, Orycteropus afer, which has sparse hair, long ears, an elongated snout, strong burrowing limbs, and a thick tail, feeding solely on ants and termites’) is frequently associated with Malcolm because of his tryst with a dictionary and how it helped turn him into one of the most eloquent speakers of the 20th Century. 

And as of today, the last word is Zyzzyva (the name of a genus of tropical weevils native to South America and typically found on or near palm trees coined by the entomologist Thomas Lincoln Casey in 1922).

Now consider this ‘fun fact’: The number of words from ක to කි makes a book as thick as any regular English dictionary. And if a dictionary is like a novel, as it was to that little boy (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, by the way) who was gifted a dictionary by his grandfather, imagine what an epic the Sinhala Dictionary must be. Indeed one might say that it’s a collection of epics.

Each word is a story if you bother to check the etymology along with the meaning. Between A and Zyzzyva, then, there are stories that we can never finish reading. Malcolm was a great orator. Marquez, well, gave us exquisitely lyrical prose. They both drank deep and frequently from wells that never run dry. Dictionaries. No laws against using them. 


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 


Other articles in this series:

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road