Friday, February 18


Beyond the Nothingness
 Andrea Auf dem Brinke —
English, like all major languages, is hugely rich beyond our capacity to exhaust its possibilities. Not even Shakespeare would entertain the notion that he did or ever could plumb its full depths, float up all its sunken treasures. Language is as bottomlessly deep as mythic oceans, as our collective unconscious. But it does have boundaries, porous ones, but boundaries nonetheless. And it is sometimes when one straddles or crosses the borders with other languages that one can find our language does have some gaps, some missing pieces. I feel we have the duty and the pleasure of pondering and filling in those blanks.

A case in point: we do not have a word for … for … hmmmm … How can I say this? A word for …

Well, that’s just the problem, isn’t it? When your language does not have a word for something, it can be vexingly difficult to pinpoint that something or even be aware that it exists ... or that it doesn’t; like trying to imagine and describe an unknown color or spot a shadow in the dark. Not just any candlestick will do.

Let me take another tack… What is the opposite of memory? When we remember something, it is in our memory, but when we do not remember, where is it? Where do forgotten memories go? I know we have the term ‘oblivion’, but it is too dire and absolute for what I am grasping at here, its connotations too apocalyptic. Oblivion is where lost time gets irretrievably lost; I am looking for something lighter, less dire.

As you may have already noticed, I love wordplay and like to invent words. I have even coined a term for this, “woiding”, inventing a word to fill a void, whether real, perceived or imagined. Recently I devoted a post to one — hydrochromology: the search for a unified field theory of the water and color cycles. And today I need a term for the opposite of memory, for the graveyard of vanished recollections, the repository of things that we have forgotten.

Spanish, like other languages, has a word for it: olvido, from the verb olvidar, to forget, with the same Latin root obliv- as 'oblivion'. In Spanish, when things slip out of my memory, they slide into el olvido. Memory can be personal, mi recuerdo, mi memoria, my recollection, my memory, or universal/impersonal/collective, el recuerdo or la memoria. But olvido is seemingly never personal, no one ever says mi olvido; when something leaves mi memoria, it goes into el olvido.

In English we tend to use the gerund “forgetting”, as when translating Neruda’s es tan corto el amor y tan largo el olvido — “so short is love, so long forgetting”. But still, forgetting is the act, whereas olvido is a place … the place where misplaced memories get shelved … memories lost, stolen or strayed. Where are you?

I have toyed with different possible word corks to plug this gap, words like oblivium (an actual Latin word), oblitium, … Or a Greek morph: letheum, from the river Lethe of forgetfulness in the underworld of Hades, where it curls around the cave of Hypnos (the personification of sleep, twin brother of Thanatos, death, both born to the goddess Nyx, night, and Erebus, darkness — what a family!). Nice, but, again, these are so absolute sounding as to border on the cataclysmic. A less melodramatic and more English and Germanic-rooted stab in the dark would be forgotdom. Maybe dismemory or unmemory, dismemberdom, … no, none of these will do.

I gave close consideration to olvimory, but that sounds a bit clunky, and I have provisionally opted for olvidium, as it seems to roll off the tongue more smoothly, just the way recollections can roll out of memory. Even so, it is, admittedly, a rather awkward way of expressing something that we all do so easily and naturally, something we are as comfortably familiar with as sleep and silence and darkness. A clumsy grafting of a familiar suffix onto an uprooted Spanish word; rather than truly ‘woiding’, what I am perhaps doing here is smuggling a term across linguistic borders, a little mangled after being snuck by the customs agents, but I hope it’s meaning is nonetheless clear. Olvidium: the opposite of memory, the capacity to forget experiences, impressions, recollections that were once in memory. And please, if you can do better or prefer another of the above, do let me know.

But why do I feel the need to press this strange invention olvidium into service here? There is a reason. While I will not be so bold as to claim there is method to my madness, I do have my reasons, which I will be happy to lay before you, my esteemed and patient readers, in a future post.

To be continued … (I hope, please remind me if I forget)


  1. I so enjoyed this post. It addresses so well issues translators face.

    When I first began reading and you asked your question, "What is the opposite of memory?", I could not help but think of how provocative a question that is, especially for those who suffer Alzheimer's or other severe losses of memory. (What's fascinating is that music is one of the very last things we lose. The MIT Media Lab is doing tremendous research on this topic and has discovered that people who cannot recall what they had for dinner can remember the lyrics of songs they learned decades ago. Another fascinating aspect is the concept of the mind's eye, which Oliver Sacks addresses in his excellent book.)

    In the U.S., we have a lot of synonyms for "forget" and also regional colloquialisms. For example, in the South, where some of my sisters live, I've heard "disremember" and "clean forget", which I've never heard where I live; interestingly, when I was in South Africa, I heard there the usage "disremembering", but it seemed to have more force than mere forgetting, as if it were a willed act.

    I look forward to your future post, Lorenzo.

  2. the memories do not go anywhere, the still reside in the memory it's just that we have forgotten where it is, we have lost the directions or maybe the bin on that particular memory shelf lost it label and so we pass it by still looking.

  3. Maureen's comment could be a post in and of itself! :) "Disremember" -- that's one I (at least in my part of the world) don't hear much, more often it's "forgot" clean and pure.

    There was more I was going to elaborate on here, but I'm afraid it's slipped into olvidium...

    PS: Do remember what you were going to tell us, Lorenzo, please.

  4. PS: Just remembered what it was I was going to say, that your post resonated with me because, after living in Uruguay, Castellano (at least South American Castellano) as stuck to me like, well, un plato de polenta.

    Still, nearly 15 years later, some words come to me quicker, with more clarity and expressiveness in Spanish than English. And funny, isn't it, that they are nearer the top of my memory tree now than some of the English words I learned in my childhood.

    For instance, telarana, so much more poetic and it comes to my mind quicker than "spider web." I could go on & on, but I think you get what I mean.

  5. A quite delightful post, Lorenzo.

    Yes, as ellen says, I think our memories are still there, somewhere in our heads, lurking as subconscious or subliminal memories. (Though, philosophically, if we can't remember these memories, how can we remember we ever had them in the first place? This is like a room full of receding mirrors..!)

    'Olvidium' is good - my only doubt being the adjective from this, 'olvidious', which may sound too much like 'invidious' and too negative - though perhaps the shadowy proximity of the word 'invidious' perfectly mirrors our feelings of frustration and resentment at having lost our ... what ..?

  6. This is totally fascinating. My mind is all over the place (but I'll try to keep it out of olvidium until I'm done with my comment).

    My mom had Alzheimer's, and i can relate to what Maureen said. Mom couldn't remember what she said or did five minutes ago, but she could play the piano expertly and even accompanied a singer who came in to practice with her in the home where she lived. Are all the memories of sufferers of dementia in olvidium?

    Likewise, are the memories I have but my siblings don't, and vice versa, in olvidium? In this sense, though it isn't my olvidium, is it theirs?

    One thing Inge and I discuss is why do we remember certain things and not others?

    I can see a nice mythology developing around Olvidium, perhaps a crater lake, or a grand canyon. How 'bout let's collaborate. You develop your LLLexicon, and a bunch of us can contribute stories about their origins. A whole new blog . . .

    So it's hydrochromology, olvidium . . . what's next in your woiding lllexicon?

    I look forward to the next post on olvidium.

  7. ...Ruth suggests another blog? LOL

    Fascinating. I like Olvidium. It took me a number of tries before I think I said it correctly! Can't wait for the future post.

  8. lorenzo my first wife and i were forever needing to create morphed words to explain or describe situations in which terms covered territory nominally described by two or more unrelated words. it was a source of great pleasure for us and then a source of great frustration for our professors and friends who were understandably flummoxed as they didn't have the inside scoop on what we were saying! steven

  9. lorenzo, i like your new word...i invent them all the time though usually it is through my misspelling....maybe i just use them i enjoyed this...see you next post...

  10. Lorenzo, your hinting at all sorts of things, not just words, but cultural understandings,concepts accepted in one and not in another. Italian has many expressions for I love you that cannot be translated at all. "Ti voglio bene" means I want the best for you, but really, one would never say it like that.

    You're tripsing on new ground. Fun and revelatory.

  11. Translation is an ART!

    Aloha from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral


  12. On seeing your comment, Maureen, I was instantly reminded of one of the very first posts I read when I started following your Writing Without Paper blog about the story of Phillip Toledano and his photo journal of his father's demise from severe dementia. I am including a link to that post here and to Toledano's magnificent Days With My Father here. His photographic 'scrap book' of the process is heartbreaking, yet somehow uplifting for the love it exudes and for the sheer beauty and dignity with which son and camera treated and portrayed a man trapped in the harrowing labyrinth of dementia.

    I guess there is a connection between olvidium and Alzheimer's and dementia ... although to me the latter two speak more of oblivion, true oblivion. In coining the new term, I wanted something less dire, in part because what I am building up to is my stammering attempt at a discussion of the creative power of forgetting, the essential role of olvidium in spawning and shaping memories. For what would or could we ever remember unless we forget?

  13. Steven, if you ever take some of those morph words public, I'd be curious to see them. In this post, I mainly discussed the absence of a word that is present in another language, but often the temptation to invent terms comes from not having a word for something in any language. There, instead of straddling the borders between languages, we are perhaps walking along the watershed between the sayable and the ineffable, between emotions and words, between language and music, art ...

  14. As a fellow logophile, Lorenzo, I loved this post, and I commend you on making a contribution to the English language, which, frankly, often seems to be in decline, rather than ascent. I think "olvidium" is a fine word for the opposite of memory or the capacity for forgetfulness. While perhaps only marginally relevant, I am reminded of two other words I like that pertain to memory. The first is "palimpsest," which is a document, parchment or otherwise, in which writing has been erased in order to make room for another text — hence, the notion of certain experiences being relegated to olvidium in order to make space for new memory. The second word is "nepenthean," which, as you will recall, comes from Homer's Odyssey, where "nepenthe" was a drug or potion that was used to induce forgetfulness. Perhaps these words are irrelevant. I just thought I would throw them into the mix.

    A great post, Lorenzo. Very entertaining to a fellow lover of words, and I enjoyed every syllable of it.

  15. Excellent - I think you've gone with the right word here alright, it's scary how much of an influence our language has on us though, the way we think etc...
    Check the below out - for an instance where it can be the difference between life and death! Apparently switching to training pilots in English - a more assertive language - has had a huge impact on improving the safety records.

  16. Oh those are wonderfully relevant, George! I love the word palimpsest and find it so suggestive when contemplating the recording and erasing of human experience in our consciousness, the way our memories are rubbed smooth and empty, perhaps to make room for new markings. As for nepenthean, it is new to me, or had a least slipped into olvidium. I reread the Odyssey a few years ago (the newer Robert Fagles translation) and was really delighted by the experience; almost as if I had never read it before, something which can probably be said of much that I read in my youth and college days. Yet, nepenthe and nepenthean were not in my word kit. So I especially appreciate this.

    And speaking of irrelevant, your comment has reminded me of a cherished anecdote about the great jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk. Many years ago, while he was still alive, the Columbia University radio station WKCR was doing a Monk marathon, where they played Thelonious’ music non-stop for several days running. Of course, one of the wonders of Monk was how he could somehow coax such sublime lyricism from those dissonant harmonies and angular melodic lines. At one point one of the DJs at the station engaged in some of the stereotypical commentary about Monk and his music saying something like “and that was Thelonious Monk once again managing to make all the wrong notes on the piano sound so beautiful”. Monk was actually listening at the time and called up the radio station, asked to speak to Phil Schaap, the head of jazz programming, and told him “Phil, can you please tell the guy who’s talking right now that the piano ain’t got no wrong notes?!”.

    So there is no such thing as wrong notes on the piano or irrelevant words in our language; just harmonies and connections waiting to be made. And I really like the ones you have made here. Thanks.

  17. So olvidium is the place for memories to wait in holding, like Erebus?

    I rather like that, and agree that the oblivion where Alzheimer's memories go is different, and dire.

    I am stunned by the Toledano portraits and have no further comment. I'll leave my silence as testament to their effect on me.

  18. Great post - great thinking Lorenzo. I have not taken the time to read the comments, so perhaps I will be repeating some things that have already been addressed ...

    I understand memory as something other than a place. Seems to me it is more of a process, and within that process there is a continuum.

    Deep tissue massage therapists tell us that buried memories are often released by the process of massaging certain body parts. Candace Pert, Ph.D. says our subconscious mind is our body. Are memories stored in cells throughout the body or in the brain? Where does mind reside? Are memory 'files' a singular unit, a separate thing, or a cluster of connections, an ever-shifting map ... Perhaps it has more to do with ease of access, availability, connectivity. Today I can access the name of that street from my childhood - while tomorrow it may take me a millisecond longer to access it - or perhaps due to many busy circuits it becomes totally inaccessible for a while. It has not gone to another 'place', it has just become less available to me in the process we call memory, or as you say my 'capacity to' access it in a given moment is facilitated or hindered for some reason.

    The connection of individual mind/unconscious to collective mind/unconscious muddies the waters even more. When I cannot access a memory has it perhaps slipped off into the collective mind? Is the collective unconscious a thing or a process? It is difficult to name the opposite of a process. Perhaps the opposite is simply a point on the continuum of the process ... and thus has no name.

    Perhaps in this mysterious process nothing is truly forgotten, it is simply misplaced, or the route to access it is temporarily closed for reconsctruction - the process being one that is ever-shifting, ever-aware, ever-sensitive to how incoming data affects previous units of information ...

    That being said, "olvidium" does sound like a word I would like to be able to bantee (sp?) about, with credit going to its inventor! :)

    Now I shall think of you as the inventor of words. Oh, and you are such a tease - making us wait for the necessity that drives this act of invention!

  19. Most enjoyable post, Lorenzo.

    Inventing words is a noble occupation, for words do shape our ability to comprehend the world. My brother, the artist James Gurney invented a word—and a whole imagined world to go with it, Dinotopia.

    I invented a word, “Soundabet” to convey an ordered set of phonemes to teach more than 40 of the English phonemes to beginning readers as an alternative to the deficient 26 character “alphabet” developed for Latin and not quite up to the task for English. Both Dinotopia and Soundabet are in use, but not used widely enough to escape garnering a red underline in word processing spell checkers.

    I like olvidium okay, but for me it resonates too much with sodium and radium and their cousins, so, for me olvidium has elemental connotations. Also, its many vowels make it feel like an import to English.

    I think “forgotdom” strongly conveys a sense of place and, in English, forgot needs no explaining. Forgotdom is impersonal, so it would fit closely to the Spanish word el olvido. Finally, because it would seem to be a place, a memory gone to “Forgotdom” could return to memory. Seems to fit your bill nicely.

    Forgotdom gets my nod for your idea.

  20. Word corks. I love that. Fascinating post. We have quite a few of our own invented words at the manor, a quirky melding of children's words, movie-speak, literature and personal experience.

  21. Lorenzo...what a wonderful perspective and thoughtful examination on this - oblivion..and how you have personalized it and made of it a mission to fulfill and bring to manifestation...I much perfer the olividum over olivory as you have stated it rolls better and the latin take adds something solid to a non-exsistence....I will look for it in upcoming writings and dictionaries...thank you...for your insite...bkm

  22. Lorenzo:

    This has been a most thought provoking and intriguing post. I must say, the comments here were exemplary but I now wish I hadn't read them before making my own comment, for my original thoughts have passed from my mind perhaps 'olividium'? I wish I could say my response if remembered would have been as eloquently stated from anyone of the comments above, but I think not. The one remaining thought I do recall is beyond the fact that word(s) have a meaning, they are also endowed with a magical virtue, a certain if you will almost hypnotic quality that works apart from the meaning they possess. When I recall great writers or as you quote here and one of my favorite quotes from Neruda on forgetting, is often words are best expressed in groups, for fuller impact, but beyond even that I think of those great writers whose works have come down through the ages and cultures and languages and yet their word(s) are still so effective but they are not remembered so much as what they said but rather for their way of saying it that survived the centuries.
    Perhaps this is not what or where you are going, but I do love these new words of yours and commend you while looking forward to the next post, but promise my comment will be brief.

  23. Yes, olvidium sounds appropriate and certainly high-brow with a proper Latin root. I was thinking along more pedestrian lines like "forgetory" to serve as a mirror to "memory".

    I am intrigued with George bringing up "nepenthe". I know "nepenthe" to be the family name for the carnivorous pitcher plant. I now wonder if the plant induces forgetfulness if ingested.

    In case you're wondering - a picture of pitcher plant is here:

  24. Shakespeare invented words as needed. I do too. However, mine will not be read 500 years from now. I feel that olvidium is a much needed word. Disremember, which I've heard, does not flow nor does it set one off to the unabridged dictionary to see if perhaps there is something usable in there already. There is not. So I will write yours in my dictionary.

  25. a most worthy endeavor, lorenzo. and i like olvidium. memories that are not recalled show go to a place with a proper name. i've always loved the concept of lethe. I understood it as the place where those go to drink the waters to help them forget this world before passing through the veil to the other side.

  26. Was going to mention Shakespeare, but MuseSwings got here first. So. I love olvidium--it is like liquid on the tongue (so the sipping of the waters of Lethe). yes, English has many gaps--because its focus is more on individual words than phrases, like the Romance languages?--but you have filled this one beautifully. I look forward to reading more about olvidium.


"Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods" — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Go ahead, leave a comment. The gods can holler a bit if they have to ...