Nerd alert: I have a giant old dictionary on a stand in my living room. It is a beautiful stand that Ben Harrison built specifically for my dictionary. If you are not familiar with his work, look for it. He is insanely talented and built the stand for me in exchange for some graphic design work. I still owe him some on the transaction and feel guilty for how much I enjoy his end of the deal.
But, I digress. The point is, I like words so much that I have a dictionary that I like to leave open to random pages just for the opportunity to learn something new. Yeah, that’s how I roll.
I wish I could say that it was my great grandfather’s dictionary or some equally special heritage, but in fact my dad picked it up for me at a yard sale at my request. He has spent the last 20 or so years of his retirement finding and selling old books online, so I knew he could find me a good one. This is a 1971 edition of “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary”. It is stamped as the property of the Kingsport University Center Library in Tennessee and “Justin was here!” is penciled on the page edges at the bottom of the book, clearly written while it lay open, just as it does on my stand at home. With 2,662 delicate pages of tiny words with tiny definitions; what’s not to love, Justin?
The book has laid open to a selection of words from “moose tick” to “more” for a while and I recently looked down towards to bottom of the page to notice the word “morbidezza” sandwiched neatly between “morbid” and “morbidity”. I had never heard the word before so I read its definition. You are, I’m sure, familiar with the meaning and tone of the word “morbid”: “1a: of, relating to, or characteristic of disease, etc.” Derived from the Latin “morbidus” meaning diseased or unwholesome. As expected, “morbidity” has similar connotation and derivation.
However, “morbidezza” is an Italian word that means an extreme delicacy or softness. The sentence example from Francis Hackett says, “… marveled at the morbidezza of the Italian women…” How can something that sounds so sickly represent such beauty? The definition even notes the same Latin derivation. How did the Italians decide that it would refer to something nearly sensual in contrast to the putrid nature of the English extrapolations of the same source?
Maybe I am losing some of you at this point, but am I the only one who is fascinated by the way that language works; the way that perspective works?
When my daughter was young and would ask me what a word meant, she couldn’t have rolled her eyes any deeper with exasperation when I would tell her to go look it up in the dictionary. She has since developed a similar love for words, but back then she found my obsession for the book on the stand downright morbid.
There has been a particularly morbid term floating around of late that was apparently used to describe one perspective on a large number of cultures outside of our own. I wish there was some alternative language by which to interpret the term into a more pleasant definition, but there is not. There is, however, an alternative perspective on the lifestyles being judged.
At the recent Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast I listened as Dr. Eric Holland, principal of Rome High School, talked about growing up so poor that they had to heat water on the stove to take a bath, and often lived without electricity because his single mother could barely afford to keep the bills paid. Many would consider such a sparse upbringing to be horrific and unbearable, and Dr. Holland even acknowledged questioning his mother about their circumstances out of the frustration of a child.
As an adult, however, he talked of how he has learned the sincere wealth of his poor upbringing. The determination he learned from his mother for “pursuing your purpose in life in spite of the obstacles you face” is an invaluable lesson that might be lost on someone who has not had to live without.
I would say considering interpretation and perspective are particularly important if we wish to live in this very diverse world in a way that is respectful of our different experiences. What seems morbid to one, may be laden with morbidezza to another. One person’s poor may be another person’s wealth, and who are we to judge?
Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.