Saturday, June 05, 2010

Beyond jejEmONIsM

WHICH word grabs you: “diligence” or “tessellated”?

I am drawn more to the word on the right.

I’m not sure what it actually means, but tassels of images and ideas tangle and brush the back of my mind while I’m turning the word around.

“Diligence,” on the other hand, lies inertly like the lump of breakfast cereal I sometimes use to blot my conscience. I know oatmeal’s good for me but I’m not curious enough to follow its journey from my bowl to the ground.

The New York Times team felt otherwise. In their “Word of the day” section, the word “tessellated” was used only once during an entire year’s coverage, in a June 2009 editorial on abortion wars. “Diligence,” in contrast, appeared in 158 Times articles in 2009, notably in a review of a book about Al Capone.

I could have stopped there. As anyone stumped by a strange word in a paragraph knows, searches with a dictionary are notoriously short-lived, even aborted. The dictionary, alas, makes fewer connections to the modern psyche than a mobile phone without load.

Propitiously, the online site of the NY Times, particularly “The Learning Network,” is full of links to appease the curious (

Why ignore “tessellated” and be lavish with “diligence”?

Defined as conscientiousness or perseverance in performing a task, the latter word figured in the phrase, “the dreary diligence of the Bureau of Internal Revenue,” that was used in the Apr. 26, 2010 Times book review, “Public Enemy No. 1”.

“Diligence,” in a word, encapsulated the emerging field of financial forensics that helped G-man Eliot Ness and the Bureau of Internal Revenue nail down Capone. “It wasn’t bullets, but paper (interview transcripts, a letter from his tax lawyer, Western Union money orders, butcher and telephone bills) that got Al Capone,” wrote the Times reviewer.

“Tessellated,” on the other hand, refers to a “checkered or mottled appearance.” Delicate aurally but raw and rather gross in association, the word, perhaps, could only be at home in an article about heartless abortionists and murdered fetuses?

The June 5, 2009 Times editorial contains the phrase, “its tessellated marble entry and grand fireplaces.” In use was the word’s other meaning: embellished with glass and stone pieced together like a mosaic.

But as it is with the virtuous and stodgy “diligence,” finding “tessellated” in such posh company made me read the rest of the article, an indulgence no dictionary permits.

This way I learned about the other side of the abortion divide. Times op-ed columnist Kate Manning wove in “tessellated” to describe the grand rewards and bloody end of Anne Lohman, a New York midwife known more as Madame Restell by the clients who sought her “female pills” to “regulate” ailments like “obstructed wombs”. In 1898, this mail-order entrepreneur slit her throat to avoid being put on trial for abortion.

By this unexpected route, “tessellated” brought me to the realization that, as early as the 1800s, the debate on reproductive health already raged, a split captured by the war of two words, “abortionist” versus “abortion-provider”.

While I will never turn my back on my five dictionaries and counting, I recommend “The Learning Network” for anyone who cares about picking up something other than jejemonism from the new media.

The Times blog was created for students, teachers and parents. You can read how to marry reading articles with class projects. You can answer crossword puzzles about classic poems to currency of the world. You can write how reading helped you change yourself, your toddler of four years, your class of non-readers.

Best of all, you can revisit the familiar and explore the uncharted. Which word grabs you: “catcall” or “refulgent”?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 6, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

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