Slip of the Tongue

Talking about Language

nolead begins By Katie Haegele

Microcosm. 159 pages. $13.95


From dissections of slang words to lyrical meditations on supposedly untranslatable foreign-language terms, Slip of the Tongue, Katie Haegele's delightful collection of personal essays on language, gave me page-turning hours of sheer word-pleasure.

To appreciate language is to praise the ties that bind us, and respect for the human is at the heart of this book. Written in a friendly, flexible style, these short essays roam from their starting points, strolling from one idea or place to another.

Haegele's ruminations springboard from her old neighborhood to the local library, a college class in linguistics, graffiti-scribbled Philadelphia streets, a Dublin pub, and a 'zine fair. I particularly like the way the author gets vehement, as when she critiques gendered terms of abuse such as hussy, harlot, and madam. But I also love it when she waxes nostalgic about bobos, which I learned is a Philly word for cheap sneakers. Speaking of Philadelphia, there's a humorous essay on the author's attempt to erase her hometown accent with the help of a voice coach.

Haegele is a local poet, crafter, and frequent book reviewer in The Inquirer. In many of her essays, the written word, especially the handwritten word, stitches together relationships. In one of my favorite chapters, the author buys a boatload of old postcards from 1911 on eBay (can you imagine how happy that made the seller aiming to declutter?) and shares the correspondence with us. Those penny postcards of yore are much like today's text messages: Should Pearle attend the dance? Would Mrs. Whipple please meet her friend at the train station? And as much as Haegele reveres the written word, she also tells a touching story of how drawings connected people who did not speak each other's languages.

Many of the most captivating essays spring from a year in Ireland, where Haegele went intending to pursue a master's program in literature. She has a particular gift for describing cultural personality. Here she captures the essence of Irish Catholic Dubliners, who embody an "intoxicating combination of beat-downness and fiery resistance, a charming and pissy sort of rebellion for its own cantankerous sake."

In her essay "Another Word for Lonely," Haegele explores foreign-language terms for aspects of loneliness and desire, terms that the speakers of those languages contend have no English equivalents. She covers the Portuguese term saudade, which means a profound longing or yearning. She describes "the chilly hollowness" of the Finnish kaiho, an existential sort of loneliness. With the help of a native speaker of Welsh, she probes the meaning of hiraeth, a melancholy desire for a sense of home and belonging. I think she does a fine job of translating these words into English; it's only that it takes several words or a sentence to convey their meaning. I may not be Portuguese, Finnish, or Welsh, but I can feel these feelings. Everything is translatable. Human emotions are worldwide emotions. That's why we read and cherish world literature.

I am very taken by Haegele's respect for the feelings of others and her own feelings. In one of the most directly memoiristic of these essays and also one of my favorites, "Obsolete," the author extricates herself from a depression by crafting a poetry collection based on dead or obsolete words, all plucked from the Oxford English Dictionary. Dead words save her from her emotional deadness, the feeling that she has "fallen off the back of the jostling covered wagon" of her life. The power of words to describe and restore the spirit grew as she crafted, published, and sold Obsolete, the title of the poetry collection. In various ways, readers from all over the world got their hands on the book and wrote her with their appreciations. And if that weren't cool enough, while selling Obsolete at a zine fair, she met a cute guy who became her husband. The human spirit and obsolete words can live again.

Slip of the Tongue is about appreciation and respect for words, both everyday and obscure, and how words, well-behaved or not, express our values and spirit.

Lynn Levin's newest book is "Birds on the Kiswar Tree," a translation from the Spanish of a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales.