In March I read Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”, her memoir mainly about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. When she first met him, on her arrival in New York City, she was looking for some friends who had moved on. He was lying on a bed, she told him of her plight and “he rose in one motion, put on his huaraches and a white T-shirt, and beckoned me to follow him”.
I had to look up the word “huarache”. It’s a type of leather sandal, and it’s the kind of word I come across in books but never hear in everyday language, or so I thought. In fact I first heard it (but didn’t recognize it) at least 40 years ago, in the Beach Boys song “Surfin’ USA”. The lyrics tell us: “You’d see them wearing their baggies / Huarache sandals too”, and I only know this from watching the Brian Wilson biopic “Love and mercy” last week with the subtitles on.
Later in the movie Paul Dano (as Brian Wilson) is attempting to get new sounds out of a grand piano, plucking the strings with “bobby pins” (hair-pins as we call them here in the UK). He asks someone in the studio to pass him some more bobby pins, before we see what he’s trying to do. I’d never heard the expression “bobby pins” before, but read it (and looked it up) back in April, in Stephen King’s “Misery”. They’re used by Paul Sheldon to unpick the lock of the room that he is being kept in by his “Number One Fan” Annie Wilkes.
Reading and hearing these words in two different places several weeks apart means that I am now more likely to remember them. That extra context is important. There are words that I recall being taught or looking up over 30 years ago. Some have featured at some point in things that I have read, seen or heard in the years since then so I no longer have to look them up, words like “martinet” (a strict disciplinarian) or “stentorian” (very loud, usually referring to someone’s voice). Other words like “hortatory” and “meretricious” have never stuck. I remember the words but not their meanings, and looked them up again a minute ago. I could look them up a dozen more times in the weeks ahead but their meanings won’t stick until they appear in some other context. They’re just words.