Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s acclaimed ‘Hamnet’ this afternoon, I was intrigued to come across an unfamiliar word. I like it when an author teaches me a new word; this one was whittawer. I reached for the nearest dictionary, The Concise Oxford. Whittawer did not appear.
I wasn’t surprised. The word looked archaic.
Next, I went to the Chambers Dictionary, a chunk of a volume, the fullest dictionary of its size that I know. Chambers offered saddler.
Later, a larger Oxford improved on the Chambers with, a person who makes whitleather. In later use also: a saddler or harness-maker, (from white plus tawer, i.e. a tanner who treats animal skins with alum or lime, which required an apprenticeship of at least seven years).
I put the dictionaries aside and I returned to ‘Hamnet’, where Hamnet’s twin laments his death of the Black Death at the age of eight years. The dying of the child and the grief that follows occupy much of pages 200 to 300. The death and the grief constitute the emotional heft of the novel. Both are particularised minutely. What might take a telegram, (Hamnet Dies, Judith cries), goes on and on, with awesome tread. For this reader not a word is wasted. The pace is meet. A death is one of the two great facts of all that lives. And every death is particular.
I looked up, seeking perhaps, respite from sorrow. There lay the Concise Oxford, the volume seventy years old, splitting now at its spine. Mum bought this book for her firstborn, Dennis. (She presented similar volumes to each of us three children who followed Dennis into the world of books and new words. To each of us Mum said, Look it up in your dictionary, Darling. That way you’ll remember the new word.)
I held Dennis’ Oxford in my palm. I had plucked that volume from Dennis’ large library of brainy books after he died at the age of sixty-three. Dennis’ Oxford is of singular construction, with a little demisphere of space excised from the page margin, in twenty-six places, creating a small lacuna for each letter of the alphabet. Mum’s four kids were guided by this ‘thumb index’ into the right spot in our dictionary for every word we sought. Today, in my search for whittawer, my thumb followed Dennis’. It led me back to that gigantic love of that son for his mother. At the physical tip of a bodily extremity I sensed my brother.
I returned to O’Farrell’s story. She gives her reader the bewilderment of the sibling, bereft: Judith puts out a hand and touches the cheek of her twin. Tears course down her face, chasing each other… such enormous tears, like heavy pearls, quite at odds with the lightness of her frame. She shakes her head, hard, once, twice. Then she says, ‘Will he never come back?’
And later, the child’s search for a self-concept in a family transformed by absence:What is the word, Judith asks her mother, for someone who was a twin and is no longer a twin? If you were a wife, Judith continues, and your husband dies, then you are a widow. And if its parents die, a child becomes an orphan. But what is the word for what I am?
I don’t know, her mother says.
(Judith): Maybe there isn’t one…
Fourteen years have passed since I succeeded to Dennis’ Concise Oxford. The thumb indices admit the edge of the pulp of my thumb. Fourteen years, and notwithstanding my wide collection of dictionaries, I still lack a word for ‘surviving brother’.