n. brisk and cheerful readiness.
My new word today is one that I have read many times before, but would never have been able to give the precise definition of. When I check “alacrity” on my trusty kindle I find it is buried in there 23 times. 23 times! I have that sinking feeling; how can I not know exactly what this word means? Apparently I have read it in:
Daniel Deronda (George Eliot)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Brontë)
Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)
The Devil’s Star (Jo Nesbø)
The Redeemer (Jo Nesbø)
How to be a Woman (Caitlin Moran)
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
Look At Me (Jennifer Egan)
White Fang (Jack London)
Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
Not to mention books I don’t store electronically. Some of these I have even read multiple times! I have to shake the shame that is crawling over me and remember why I am doing this in the first place.
Now that I am collecting new words for this blog I find I am reading even more closely and making sure I fully understand. It is like learning a new language. I remember reading over French texts and being able to understand them without always knowing the exact translation or definition of many of the words and I had to force myself to go back and look them up in order that they became part of my own vocabulary. I guess it is the same with English. We get to a point where we stop simply absorbing the language. Our core vocabulary or personal dialect is set and we must really make the effort to learn new words.
This time I have had a breakthrough, and it happened coincidentally whilst reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. The book had me right from the beginning; I was enjoying Chopin’s vivid descriptions and felt myself quickly being absorbed into the life of Mrs Pontellier.
I was on a roll, reading as fast as my eyes could trace the page, devouring the book as if it were written in fading ink and I found myself doing the inevitable yet undesirable: skim reading. This is a terrible habit I have, which came in useful at university but is not so helpful when reading a novel. I also find myself doing it whilst reading online, (maybe you do, too? Did you even read the last paragraph?) accustomed to short snippets of information I begin to scan the sentences for the most useful parts. I was hopping and skipping over a paragraph when something stopped me and I had to force myself to retrace my steps. Did I actually fully understand the sentence I had just “read”?
The quadroon was following them with little quick steps, having assumed a fictitious animation and alacrity for the occasion.
First of all I was halted by the word quadroon. The language of old books can often be shocking from a modern perspective and The Awakening (1899), whose commentary on the expectations of women are so forward-thinking, is full of these dated racial classifications. It reminds me of a Cuban novel I studied; Sab by Gertrudis Gómez Avellaneda. An anti-slavery story that also challenges the patriarchal institutions of the time, it of course contained many of the caste words which, if written nowadays, would certainly be racist.
So I was stuck, lingering over this phrase, and I found myself wondering just exactly what her ‘fictitious alacrity’ meant. I had to check the dictionary, and so it went on the list. I hope this will teach me to pay more attention to what I am reading, to savour each word, because it is in this way that I can truly connect with the author and with the novel.
P.S For some reason I really do not like the word alacrity. I find it strange to pronounce and I just don’t enjoy its sounds. Also it seems quite stale. How often is it used without the word ‘with’? Anne Brontë uses it 5 times in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, every one is ‘with alacrity’.