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Word of the week: disconsolate

Disconsolate means “very unhappy and unable to be comforted”, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English on my Kindle.

My 10-year-old daughter and I have been reading “The Silver Sword” by Ian Serraillier. She had been learning about the Second World War at school and chose this book to accompany her studies. We had a copy of it when I was a child but I never opened it, not even once. That copy is in the house somewhere but my daughter borrowed the book from her school library. I downloaded it to my Kindle so that I could adjust the font and read it without squinting, on my way to and from work. It’s a tricky business. Children’s books often make me tearful, and this one certainly made me well up, stood by the door on a District Line train as I read the last few chapters.

Before my daughter chose it I had no idea that it was about World War Two. From the title I assumed that it was from the Middle Ages, about an actual sword, but the title refers to a small dagger, used as a letter-opener by a Polish family. They are separated after the invasion of Poland and the story follows the children’s attempts to find their parents, aided by a mysterious boy called Jan, to whom their father had entrusted the sword. Last month my daughter had become discouraged, making slow progress trying to read the book unaided. The chapter about the Burgomaster was the tipping-point. She had read it but the words meant nothing to her. She was tearful, disconsolate even. We re-read that chapter together, with me explaining some of the new words and concepts to her, and that was when I decided to download the book, catch up with where she was, and go back and re-read some of the earlier chapters with her too.

You have to find a balance when reading this sort of book with your child. You can’t explain every new word and idea but you have to explain some of them. The challenge is knowing which ones to discuss and which ones to leave. In Chapter 14, “City of the Lost” the children reach Berlin.

“The station was a shambles, but everyone was glad to escape from their cramped quarters … Most of them hung about or sat down on their luggage – hundreds of tired and disconsolate men, women, and children – in the hope that they would be given food or told where to go.”

I asked my daughter if she knew what “disconsolate” meant. She didn’t. I asked if she knew the word “inconsolable”. No again. I explained that they were both linked to the idea of being consoled or comforted, being made to feel better. People who are disconsolate or inconsolable cannot be consoled. It’s possible that nothing will make them feel better. “Consolation” is linked to this idea of being comforted, and we know the word from watching football. Your team are losing 4-0 but right at the end you score a goal, a consolation goal. It doesn’t change the result but it makes you feel a bit better.

“Disconsolate” is also the answer to my favourite crossword clue. I was 16 and rarely got more than a handful of answers in any of the cryptic crosswords I attempted. The first clue containing an anagram that I ever solved was: “Type of duck disturbed by a mob (6)” (Answer: Bombay, which is an anagram of “by a mob”). Soon afterwards came this one: “Is not solaced by rearrangement (12)”. The answer is disconsolate, which is both an anagram of “Is not solaced” and has the same meaning. The tidiness of the clue, and my ability to solve it, made me feel good about crosswords. It still does.

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