My Life As A Lexical Gap
or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And [word that doesn’t exist in English]
For as long as I can remember I’ve been drawn to gaps. Thresholds. Portals. Liminal spaces. Missing addresses. Secret gardens. Hidden things. Blind spots created by the rules. Words that don’t exist. Cracks in the world.
When I was a kid I ate up stories that involved finding secret places, or in-between-places. The Neverending Story. The Chronicles of Narnia. Some cartoon I only half remember where a character had a secret key they could use on any door, and using the key would turn the door into a portal to some Other Place. Star Trek holodecks and warp portals in Super Mario and cupboards under the stairs.
That didn’t really change when I was an adult. I devoured Neverwhere in a day. I sought out places in the real world that were hidden or secret in some way, like this place and this place. I spent so much time seeking out some pocket realm, or trying to trace where the cracks were, or find the things that no one else noticed and, er, notice them.
In some ways that’s what I was trying to do with my art. I wanted to make hidden or liminal spaces, installations that existed apart from the rest of the world. I wanted to clear thresholds and hold space for people. I wanted the viewers of my work to find the gaps too.
Now that I focus on writing as both a job and as a mode of being in the world, I’ve become obsessed with lacunae. Holes in the phonology. Semantic blindspots. That sort of thing. I write a weekly newsletter and I always include a lacuna at the end — a word from another language that doesn’t have an English equivalent. I’m so fascinated by the ways in which our language is ill-suited to reckon with parts of us and the world, and the extent to which we pretend this isn’t as big a problem as some would make it out to be.
In English, we don’t have a word for people who aren’t virgins. What the non-virgin lexical gap really made me think was that our obsession with sexual purity is such that once you are no longer this THING, you are indescribable.
— John Green
But there’s a Thing, you see. Recently I’ve become all too aware of how much my existence is, itself, a lexical gap.
It’s been nearly a year since I publicly came out as nonbinary. That first day or so was such a rush. The outpouring of support from close friends and chosen family was so uplifting, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt better about being who I was. After that, life became more or less what I expected and hoped for — boring.
Even so, were some hiccups in my day-to-day life have emerged. I adopted they/them/their for pronouns, partly in an attempt to meet the world at large halfway (since people already use the Singular They in casual conversation anyway). But even that creates problems. If you want to tell someone that I’m going to meet up with you somewhere, do you say “they are going to catch up with us later”? Or, “they is going to catch up with us later”? No one’s figured that out yet!
What should my 10-year-old nephew call me? I’m not his uncle, and I’m not his aunt. For that matter, what does my sister call me? Sibling works, I suppose, but it’s a bit impersonal.
I am neither a lady or a gentleman. So what is the proper honorific for me, should I need one? (A friend recently suggested gentlenby, and while I kinda love it, I’m not sure it works as a permanent solution.)
I could go on but I think you see what I’m getting at. If there’s been a recurring theme in my life as it concerns my gender identity, it’s the ways in which my native language is ill-equipped to deal with me. Like I’m breaking something big and important just by existing.
(This is a tricky enough problem for day-to-day life, but, again, I’m a writer. This comes up a lot.)
Again and again and again, this same pattern emerges. I try to put words to things, and they’re just not there. Not only that, but the absence of an applicable word is felt — in the same way that the absence of a word that describes taking joy in others’ misery is obvious, and only made more conspicuous by the conscription of the German schadenfreude to fill that gap. Even if the hole is plugged perfectly, it’s still a plugged hole.
The tyranny of that gap is so strong that I couldn’t even figure out who and what I was for most of my life. It took years to realize there was a word for what I am, and a bit longer to realize it was a word that applied to me. And so, I’ve tried to make my way through the world and encountered a long, exasperating string of null errors.
I’ve been a writer on and off my whole life, and the kind that gets paid for it for three years. Mostly what I have to do as a writer — at least in my professional capacity — is to Get To The Point. I have to have a strong headline, a clear lede/thesis, and a strong body built on clear evidence. And I have to get things across quickly.
And yet the past few years have underscored the fact that nothing in my life is about getting to the point quickly. My whole life has been a haphazard collection of lexical gaps, and parenthetical asides, and semicolons, and em-dashes, and tangents, and run-on sentences.
Which begs a question. If my Thing is words, and the words are often insufficient… what do I actually have?