David Foster Wallace may be forever remembered as The Footnote Guy, and not without reason. His prolixity reached even into the small-print margins, and tempus tacendi never seemed to occur to him. Yet language was much more than unrefined fuel for the revving engine of his thought. Although he often got carried away with words, Wallace was keenly tuned to the way we use them, both on the page and in speech. You can find that sensitivity in his hilarious and sharp personal essay “Authority and American Usage” (originally published in Harpers and then in his collection Consider the Lobster).
An even better place to get inside Wallace’s thinking as a writer is the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (Oxford University Press, 2004), for which he was a contributing editor (along with Francine Prose, Zadie Smith and other luminaries). Each editor offers “word notes” that pop up wherever a particular word provoked a thought. Wallace’s notes are especially useful and incisive, and he is neither a stodgy purist (explaining how the female connotations of “effete” are legitimate, both etymologically and historically) nor a postmodern linguistic scofflaw: His exegesis on the widely misused phrase “beg the question” is concise, eloquent and forceful.
Wallace is, of course, deeply aware of the political side of language, using a note at the word “dysphesia” (a typo, amazingly: it’s “dysphasia”) to swipe at Bush père et fils. But he is also bluntly practical, which is ultimately what Wallace was always trying to be, I think. He lets you know, for example, that there’s no reason to use “towards” when “using ‘toward’ is a costless, unpretentious way to signal your fluency in American English.” And he wonders why anyone would choose “utilize” (“a puff-word”), since “good-old ‘use’” works just as well.
But perhaps the most revealing of Wallace’s word notes is for “pulchritude”: “a paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language.” He lists some others (e.g. “big,” “colloquialism,” “monosyllabic”), and then suggests “inviting your school-aged kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can [as] a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves.” That last observation is a beautifully condensed summary of the whole voluble, ugly, tiresome, self-obfuscating project of semiotics (so much for Wallace’s incorrigible prolixity). And now that Wallace is gone, his suggestion is a reminder that he died childlesshe was fantasizing about a fatherhood (and the accompanying life) that he never gave himself a chance to fulfill. It’s a terrible shame, because I suspect that Wallace’s kids would have been very lucky and very loved: A father who would tune me in to the nuances of languagewhich is our basic means of transit through all of our daysis a father I would have liked to have.
Adam Sobsey, a playwright and frequent contributor to the Independent, won the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ first-place award in 2008 for arts criticism for newspapers with circulations below 55,000. Brian Howe, another frequent contributor to the Indy‘s arts and music pages, offers his thoughts on Wallace on the Moistworks blog.