Saturday, March 3, 2012

There's no Diva in Divagate

   Learning new words in a writing class is hardly remarkable, but I’ll remark on it anyway. The other day, one of Mary’s poems included the word “peplum.”  “What’s peplum?” I asked. It is, I was told, a ruffle attached to the waistline of a coat or blouse. Thus enlightened, I left class with a new word in my vocabulary; a word I was sure I had never seen before and would never see again. Never turned out to be about five hours and twenty minutes.
   After supper, I fired up the computer to read a few essays in Of All Things, by Robert Benchley. It’s funny, until a couple months ago, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to read a book on a computer screen. Then I got a new computer with Blio included in the software package. It lets me download books. I don’t pay attention to the books it wants paid for, but I can’t get away from the books it offers for free. 
   It reminds of going to the book rack at Goodwill. There were always books I “should” have read by authors I “should” have been familiar with, and once-popular books fondly remembered by those who had read them. And the books, usually battered, dog-eared paperbacks, were cheap. If I enjoyed the book, it was a bargain. If I put it aside after a few pages, I was out fifty, maybe seventy-five cents. Downloading for free sounds like a better deal, but most of the “serious” or “literary” books at Goodwill were donated by college students disposing of required reading. Often, key passages were underlined, and sometimes there was a note in the margin explaining why the passage was important. But if you were really lucky, the book was peppered with unkind comments about the professor or the young lady who had jilted the book’s former owner. You don’t get that stuff in downloaded books.
   But, back to Benchley. In the piece I read that evening, “When Genius Remained Your Humble Servant,” he writes, “Of course, I really know nothing about it, but I would be willing to wager that the last words of Penelope, as Odysseus bounced down the front steps, bag in hand, were: ‘Now, don't forget to write, Odie. You'll find some papyrus rolled up in your clean peplum, and just drop me a line on it whenever you get a chance.’”
   Chances are Benchley was not a seamstress, and peplum wasn’t always, and perhaps still isn’t, an arcane term known only to the needle-wielding set. I’d probably come across it many times before I noticed it in Mary’s poem. I bet English authors delight in using peplum in the middle of those excruciating twenty-five-page descriptions of the heroines’ outfits. And I bet most of them haven’t any idea of what a peplum is. It’s just a word they picked up somewhere, and they’re counting on the reader being too dazed by the onslaught of fashion minutia to look it up.
   The next day, because I am a conscientious student, I discovered “divagate,” although I cheated just a bit. The assignment was to count the number of times you could stroke your pet before it noticed. We were to add 110 to that number, go to that page in the dictionary, and count down eleven entries and write a poem that included that word. Unfortunately, Cuddles the Cat will hardly let me touch her, except when it suits her purpose. When it does suit her purpose, she will let me stroke her for the better part of an hour, maybe longer. My choice seemed to be going directly to page 111, or waiting for her to plop in my lap, in which case I would need three or four volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. Pulling out my literary license, I decided Cuddles would let me stroke her four times, and I turned to page 414 of The American Heritage Dictionary: Second College Edition. I counted down eleven words in the left-hand column and found disulfide; a boring word without poetic value, if ever there was one. Then I tried the right-hand column and found divagate.
   At first blush – and I did blush – I thought the word referred to scandals involving temperamental, conceited female vocalists. But the “I” in divagate is a long “I” and the word means to wander or stray. In reference to speech, divagate means to digress or ramble.
   Having divagated long enough, I’ll stop.

                     But I Divagate
           To divagate is to wander or stray,
           But Cuddles the Cat will not go away.
           In speech, divagated means you’ve digressed
           So perhaps it’s time I give it a rest.

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