I’ve learned a new word, this time from that delightful (and heroic) writer Nicholson Baker. I was reading the title essay in his collection The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber when I came across this sentence: “And since a large thought seems to wish to pierce and acknowledge and even to replenish many more shoots and plumules of one’s experience, some shrunken from long neglect (for every thought, even the largest, tires, winds down, and hardens into a hibernating token of chat, a placeholder for real intellection, unless it is worried into endless, pliant movement by second thoughts, and by the sense of its own provisionality, passing and repassing through the many semipermeable membranes that insulate learning, suffering, ambition, civility, and puzzlement from each other), its hum of fineness will necessarily be delayed, baffled, and drawn out with numerous interstitial timidities—one pauses, looks up from the page, waits; the eyes move in meditative polygons in their orbits; and then, somehow, more of the thought is released into the soul, the corroborating peal of some new, distant bell—until it has filled out the entirety of its form, as a thick clay slip settles into an intricate mold, or as a ladleful of batter colonizes cell after cell of the waffle iron, or as, later, the smell of that waffle will have toured the awakening rooms of the house.”
(Pause to admire the waffle smell making its way up the long corridors of the meandering sentence.)
The word “plumule” struck me; it turns out it’s pronounced PLOOM-yule [/”plu:myu:l/], and it means ‘rudimentary shoot, bud, or bunch of undeveloped leaves in a seed’ (it’s from Latin plūmula, the diminutive of plūma ‘small soft feather, down’), so that “shoots and plumules of one’s experience” is a very tasty phrase, incorporating both the visible (as it were) and the embryonic shoots sprouting up from the depths of our lived lives and mulish memories.
And now, for my own pleasure and hopefully yours, I’m going to reproduce the opening paragraph of the essay:
Each thought has a size, and most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product. Once in a while, a thought may come up that seems, in its woolly, ranked composure, roughly the size of one’s hall closet. But a really large thought, a thought in the presence of which whole urban centers would rise to their feet, and cry out with expressions of gratefulness and kinship; a thought with grandeur, and drenching, barrel-scorning cataracts, and detonations of fist-clenched hope, and hundreds of cellos; a thought that can tear phone books in half, and rap on the iron nodes of experience until every blue girder rings; a thought that may one day pack everything noble and good into its briefcase, elbow past the curators of purposelessness, travel overnight toward Truth, and shake it by the indifferent marble shoulders until it finally whispers its cool assent—this is the size of thought worth thinking about.
And before I go, let me repeat the definition of plūma: “small soft feather, down.” Small soft feather, down—isn’t that a lovely phrase?