A short while after we’d moved into our house, the lady who takes in ironing in the neighbourhood leaned on the bell to inform us that we hadn’t given her any money. After a moment of complex emotion, I agreed that this was true, and gently closed the door. I now know that the word I was searching for at the time was warra-warra.
Warra-warra, I recently read, was the first aboriginal phrase recorded by 18th-century British settlers in Australia, and it means “Go away”. It is a fantastically useful word, particularly on every day of the week, which is when people ring my doorbell wanting money. I feel rude telling them to go away, especially if it’s the Blind School or the Victims of Terrorism camp, but I think that I can probably smile, waggle my head non-committally, and say warra-warra, without upsetting anyone. I will have gotten things off my chest, and, except in the unlikely case that he or she happens to be an actual Australian aboriginal on a whirlwind fundraising tour of South Delhi, my unwelcome guest will back away slowly, assuming that I’m verbigerating.
Verbigeration is what can sometimes comes out of the mouth of a mentally ill person, or of someone whose brain language functions have been affected. It’s a collection of noises that sound like words and language, but aren’t. I think I can do a pretty good imitation, thanks to close surveillance of my two-year-old niece who, as far as I can tell, spends all day verbigerating on imaginary telephones. (I’m sure there’s a different word for the nonsense that children speak, but I don’t know it, and the description is awfully similar. I was a bit worried about her development until I read that Einstein’s parents thought he was going to be slow because he learned to speak so late.)
Not being able to speak, or, more accurately, not being able to express yourself, must be the loneliest, saddest thing in the world, after being George Bush. There are few things as horrifying and cruel as becoming immured in one’s own declining faculties. Watching the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, or the effects of a stroke, is truly excellent incentive to try to keep it all going as long as possible.
As with abdominal muscle tone, so with speech: the conventional wisdom is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. Spend long enough by yourself, without speaking, and you could end up spouting all kinds of crazy garbage (“I know, I’ll be a freelancer!”). Ditto verbal ability. If you don’t regularly make yourself reach for words deep inside your brain and use them, rather than merely read them off a page, you’ll end up thinging the um out of the whatnot, and your children will not know that you wanted them to empty your bedpan, or reinsert the catheter, or whatever. Ditto math: if you don’t do some every day, you’ll never be able to put two and two together, and will be robbed blind. Ditto motion and balance. Sit on your posterior all day watching Fashion House on TV, and when you rise, you will fall over and break a hip.
My aunt keeps herself sharp by doing the daily crossword and the Sudoku. (I think she asks her children for help sometimes, but it’s the thought that counts. Literally.) For my part, since I have little hope for the brain, I’m starting with the body; no more cigarettes, and a lot more exercise. I can feel the effects already: I have a sore throat, and I’ve almost killed four people on the road for driving badly. To everyone who keeps saying it’ll get better, I say: Warra-warra.