I was in a bookshop last week – heading for the all too small section of English books.

I know I should read more in Italian but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d be doing this just to improve my language skills rather than for pleasure.
I met a friend there browsing in Travel – she was going to Berne in Switzerland the next day and was genning up on places she could visit. She’s Italian but prefers to speak English which is fine with me.

On saying farewell, buon viaggio etc,  I was stopped by a man who was loitering in the reference section.  He said he couldn’t help overhearing me talking in English and asked if I was a native speaker. I confessed to this charge. He was a Turkish asylum seeker and my immediate thought was that he wanted money but instead he wanted to know a word that he had been searching for.

He said that he remembered the definition but not the actual word. The definition was that it is the imprint in water that a boat leaves behind when going out to sea. I thought of trail or afterflow but this wasn’t it. He said he thought the first two letters were ‘A’ and ‘B’

It was an intriguing request and I asked why he wanted to know this. It turns out that he likes to memorise word definitions and he said if he can’t match word with meaning it drives him crazy. He pointed to a Longman learner’s dictionary which has about 100,000 entries and he said he had learnt all the words in this. 

He challenged me to give him a word so that he could demonstrate.

Thinking of ab……. words, I suggested  ABHOR.  Immediately he said “ABHOR – to hate  a kind of behaviour of way of thinking strongly”. 

Another?  SURGE  I asked:

SURGE – a sudden or abrupt movement of a lot of people OR a suddent increase in voltage in an electric circuit.

I do not doubt that he could have repeated this with the other 99,998 words. 

 Pretty impressive although maybe also the kind of ‘gift’ that would tend to drive you slowly insane. Harold (Hal) Incandenza in David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ had the same ability to recite great chunks of the dictionary verbatim. After demonstrating this with the word IMPLORE, he admitted “I tend to get beat up, sometimes, at the Academy, for stuff like that”.

The guy I met looked a bit ragged but was friendly and eccentric in a good way. Certainly his wordpower is something that I’d find useful as I continue with the novel writing challenge for NaNoWriMo . I’m currently on target at 22,000 words and enjoying the process. The end result (50,000 words) will not be a masterpiece but that’s not the point. It’s quantity, not quality that counts at this stage and at 175 pages it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the 1,079 page Infinite Jest .

By the way, if anyone reading this happens to know the word the Turkish man was searching for please tell me – maybe I’ll see him again and can put him out of his misery. Mine too!