In search of a word…

For the past week or so, I’ve been looking for a word. Yes, it sounds crazy, not a pair of glasses, or car keys, or even a misplaced phone number. But a word. The word I was looking for was – I thought – “asture.” 

But it came up with the red squiggly line underneath it which means spell check thinks it’s misspelled. 
So I clicked on the red squiggly and this is what spellcheck offered me:

Assure
Astute
Pasture
Satire
Azure
 
None of these were the one that I wanted. I was typing away, happily meeting my NaNoWriMo goals, when I wanted this word “asture” to describe the boss in the novel I’m writing. I meant, purposefully sparse, a no nonsense man. I Googled it, figuring the internet dictionary would know exactly what I meant.
 
Turns out the Internet (and Google) have their limits too. This is what I got with a search for “asture”: lots of links explaining the word pasture.
 
I was getting desparate: had I made up a word? I am moderately dyslexic when it comes to spelling and numbers – things reverse themselves – so I turned to my tried and true source for all things literary: my undergraduate English professor.
 
Here is the email I wrote her, subject line, “What is the word I mean?”:
 
Asture? The word that means sparse, plain, reserved.
 
Would have been in Jane Eyre to describe that orphanage where her friend died from TB.
 
I can’t find it and the dictionary thinks I mean ‘astute’ which I do not.
 
Did I make this word up?
 
Help!
m

Everyday she is now living her dream of being in the Big Apple, teaching and walking around everywhere, or taking the subway, right in the middle of the city that pulses with life. After decades in North Carolina, raising three children, and teaching at a small liberal arts college, she threw off the shackles of domesticity and made me dream come true. Needless to say, with her in NYC and me in Doha, our correspondence is more precious than ever.
 
As I waited for her response, I posted to a NaNoWriMo (http://www.nanowrimo.org/user/234858) forum, WORD OF THE DAY, which offers everyday a word to work into your section for that day. There were funny ones such as flies, or cut, or purple, and there were interesting ones such as abandon, or precise, or betrayal. Having stumbled onto the forum, I was ten or twelve words behind. I busily started writing in the past suggestions but I was still stumped by the specter of “asture.” So I wrote the forum moderator, a similar, but increasingly desperate plea to figure out what word I meant. (For more on my NaNoWriMo: http://mohanalakshmi.livejournal.com/2813.html)
 
She (I’m assuming, not entirely sure that is a woman) wrote me back a polite message with various permutations of words that were close to the spelling of the word I wanted, and some that were not:
perhaps you mean:
astute: shrewly discerning, acute, wiley – someone who quickly picks up what is going on from minimal information

aesthete: one who makes overmuch of the ‘sense of the beautiful’ generally someone who is not a part of the real world of emotions and dirt

apathy: indifferenct to what appeals to feelings – dont care about anything

aloof: removed in distance or feeling from, reserved stand offish, not involved

Was her tone slightly…. Impatient? 
I waited, knowing I would be vindicated by my now urbanite mentor.
 
Her opening line:
 
“I’ve never heard of it in my life.”
 
What? I thought. Eeek! I

’ve invented a word, and not only that, a word so obscure that even my most favorite literature teacher in the world hasn’t heard of it. I despaired and felt foolish. Perhaps the forum leader on NaNoWriMo was right to edit me. Perhaps I was a dolt, searching for a word that didn’t exist, stubbornly bothering people who had better things to do – like write with words that everyone knows, for example.

 
Then, in the typical intellectually curious fashion that she used on me all four years of undergraduate to bolster a burgeoning interest in graduate school, she recounted an episode of something similar happening to her:
 
But then I was teaching a poem by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper called “Bury Me in a Free Land.”  It’s in one of those used-to-be-$1, now $2 Dover editions.  One stanza starts, “I could not rest if I heard the tread / Of a coffle gang to the shambles led.”  I’d never heard to coffle and didn’t get around to looking it up.  Then the day I was teaching it, I went and left my book at home, so found it on the internet and printed it out.  There, the line read “Of a coffee gang to the shambles led.”  That sort of made sense – maybe a coffee plantation on a Caribbean island.  I made a point about how Dover can’t afford to do careful editing and still keep the price down.  Then in the middle of that night I suddenly remembered coffle, went to dictionary.com, and learned it’s a line of prisoners chained together.  So the next class, I had to make the point that the internet is even less trustworthy! 
 
Love,
 
I put this all behind me and kept going on NaNoWriMo, kept going with daily tasks like work, laundry, having a dinner party, cleaning up. 

My husband has recently started going back to school to complete a bachelor’s degree that fell by the wayside when he was offered full time employment as an undergrad.

 
“How do you know so many words?” he asked me one night while I was typing busily on the laptop on NaNoWri
Mo.
 
He was at the dinning table, typing on his latest assignment on his laptop.
 
“Reading,” I mumbled, “I read a lot and you always learn words that way.”
 
“Do you stop and look up every word you don’t know?’
 
I looked up.
 
“I don’t really have to anymore. But I used to. Sometimes I’d circle them and then come back.”
The rest of the evening went in companionable silence and we both reached our requisite word counts.
 
A few more nights go by and I’ve forgotten all about my quest for this word that no one else seems to know but me.
 
And last night, tucked in bed, feeling a little achy from a cold he had likely passed on to me, I read. I read because I always have read, ever since I can remember, from eight or nine, my mother taking us to the bookmobile to get our weekly allotment. I’ve read things she didn’t want me to read, romance novels before she thought I was ready for them, and this is how I found about many things about life as an adult she would rather have kept secret (but that’s another story).
 
So I read last night, like nearly every night for a ten thousand nights.
 
And that’s when it happened:

In the middle of SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky there it was:

“Mentally Charlie reproached her for this – he liked his maids to be thin and a bit austere – but she looked about thirty-five or forty, the perfect age for a servant, when they’ve stopped working too quickly but are still fit and strong enough to provide good service” (223).
 
THE WORD! Used EXACTLY as I meant it to describe the boss in my novel!
 
I circled it, dog-eared the page, and went to bed with a smile on my face.
 
Now even Google knows what it means:
 
Austere, bleak, spartan, stark all suggest lack of ornament or adornment and of a feeling of comfort or warmth.”
dictionary.reference.com/browse/austere
 
Thank you, Mom, for sharing with me the love of reading.
Thank you, mentor, for giving me the courage to ask questions.
 
Now, back to that novel, and that austere boss character….

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Reader Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Amazing

    As I read the first paragraph of your entry, a dim, flickering light went off in my head. I know that there is a word in the GRE list that means what your “asture” means, and I know it has the letters a,u,r and e. (It’s weird, I remember words by their spelling, not their sound). And I know it appears on the list after ascetic, which is similar in some ways but not the same.
    I stared off into the distance, racked my brain, but completely blanked.
    Thank you and Irene Nemirovsky for answering that puzzle.

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