Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Here's the kind of word you can really hang a hat on. Look it up in the OED and you get:

(Meaning not clear.)
1803 LAMB Let. to Manning 19 Feb., The Tartars, really, are a cold, insipid, smouchy set.

Now, I don't think the dictch (that's like sitch but not really) means "meaning not clear" in the way, say, Stephin Merritt sings in what surely must be one of the song of songs about language and the way (as Virginia Woolf might say) words fail.

Cause I always say I love you when I mean Turn out the light
And I say Let's run away when I just mean Stay the night

How much of your day do you spend mired in misunderstanding simply because everybody is working from a different lexicon? Words have valence.

To me what's funny about smouchy is that it's a word I use to approximate smush--"It's getting smouched in there with all those apples." Tonight I looked it up, however, because the OED is going to publish a thesaurus. On the sample page, I passed over an entry for smouching (more a bit farther down).

Consider: Smouchy, smoochy.

I once dated a man who (after committing actual romantic gestures) told me "Maybe I'm not a smoochy guy." Perhaps he had no idea what he was talking about. Perhaps that's a love-rune (that's another thesaurus word, c. 1225) to be.

If the thesaurus page on kisses and related emotions (does it include throwing glassware? speaking of which: I actually passed Philip Roth on West 79th this weekend) is any indication of the tome to come, it will be fine reading in its own right and for the way it will illuminate so many other texts.

Passado (1606–1656), for example, means "interchange of confidences/amorous relations." Now Mercutio's line makes so much more sense--"Come, sir, your passado." Excellent. That line has been in my head for many months now. The Folger Shakespeare edition footnote explains that a passado is fencing step forward with a thrust, but is any thrust in Shakespeare ever just a thrust? I wasn't thinking clearly. Given Mercutio's feelings toward Romeo this finally makes more sense.

The thesaurus sample also has, under " (n.) Amorous love," the real thing (neither specific to Stoppard nor to Kurt Andersen, 1857–); love-money (coins broken in two as love-token, 1856); lightilove (inconstancy in love, 1578), and turtle (person showing affection for mate, c. 1500–1865).

Under the vt. of Kiss there is the smouch (1588–1600). So were the Tartars really and truly a cold, insipid and smouchy set?

Addendum that has nothing to do with dictionaries: In the latest episode of "Mad Men," my favorite television show, there is a disjointed scene in which Betty takes Sally into the living room (ruined now by the hulk of the fainting sofa, or whatever it's called) and attempts to explain a little something about first kisses. I get the feeling the writers wanted her to say this but the kairos is a little wrong, and the whole presentation doesn't parse. For one thing, she doesn't care enough about Sally's emotional well-being, else she would have comforted her when Grandpa Gene died. Back to bussing.

She tells Sally the following, about a first kiss:

"You're going to want it to be special, so you remember." Wrong. You remember it if and/or because it's special, and possibly not even happily so. [BD Translation: I remember my first kiss with your father.]

"It's where you go from being a stranger to knowing someone"; this is truthful. Well put. [BD Translation: It made me want to know your father more intimately.]

"And every kiss with them after that is a shadow of that kiss." We bounce into the rough. [BD Translation: I married your father because of the fur jacket, the set of his shoulders, his jawline, his eyes, his voice, his hands, his lips, his posture, his hair, everything between his legs, the way he looks in a suit, the way he looks in an undershirt, his drive (all drives), and because it was time to get married and bring you and your brother into the world, since this is the 1950s. My kisses cabinet is shadowy, if not ghostly, although now I've had that first kiss with Henry Francis. . . . ]

I wrote a short piece about kissing (for Nerve) and had it been published later I might have addressed this shadow-of-the-former issue. Indeed, I was half-undone one night by a kiss that bore very (very very) little resemblance to the first kiss with the kisser. The only reason he made it to that point was because of a chain of gestures that had nothing to do with the first kisses. This man was less an aficionado than a notcher. His first kiss was memorable for its utter lack of emotional depth. It was clinical and Trojan Horse; it was just to get in. There was nothing tender or self-delighting about it--thus it was somewhat interesting (and a reminder to never form another attachment, no matter how casual, with a man who kissed this way). That a later kiss could have so much real emotion in it, therefore, was, it must be said, remarkable.

So it turns out that Betty, like umpteen parents who have no idea, really, what they're talking about, has not considered that a first kiss can turn out to be a shadow. It's likely Sally will remember that kiss as her first, anyway.

The person who could explain a thing or two to Betty about how life really works is the only woman on the show who's whole (wholesome?), and who makes Don whole: Anna. She's so sturdy, she probably knows something about kissing, and I bet when her husband was alive she was a turtle.

Until Betty's next piece of questionable advice, we have the memory of Don lighting her cigarette ever so quickly and smoothly. Smoking and fencing. . . .

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