Swimming In Words With Oliver Sacks

His love of language was a gift in itself.

By Bill Hayes

Published in The New York Times – August 29, 2018

The beloved neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was a man of many enthusiasms — for ferns, cephalopods, motorbikes, minerals, swimming, smoked salmon and Bach, to name a few — but none more so than for words.

When I say he loved words, I don’t simply mean within the context of being a writer of numerous classic books — “Awakenings,” “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” “Musicophilia.” Even if he had never written a single one, I am sure Oliver would still have been that funny fellow who took giant dictionaries to bed for light reading (aided by a magnifying glass). He delighted in etymology, synonyms and antonyms, slang, swear words, palindromes, anatomical terms, neologisms (but objected, in principle, to contractions). He could joyfully parse the difference between homonyms and homophones, not to mention homographs, in dinner table conversation. (He also relished saying those three words — that breathy “H” alliteration — in his distinctive British accent.)

“Every day a word surprises me,” he once commented, beaming, apropos of nothing other than that a word had suddenly popped into his head. Often this happened while swimming — “ideas and paragraphs” would develop as he backstroked, after which he’d rush to the dock or pool’s edge to get the words down on paper — as Dempsey Rice has captured in an enchanting forthcoming film, “The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks.” Back at home, he would often — as he had for years — write thoughts and ideas directly on the pages of books he was reading.

Through much of our six-year relationship I referred to Oliver as a “walking OED” (Oxford English Dictionary) because he could recall spellings and definitions so accurately. And yet he remained modest, never flaunting his extraordinary vocabulary and always deferring to a dictionary for confirmation if in doubt — either the OED, of which he had the full set of 20 volumes, or the far more compact and idiosyncratic Chamber’s Dictionary, a copy of which his favorite aunt had given him on his ninth birthday.

Oliver loved words so much, he often dreamed of them, and sometimes dreamed them up. One morning, six years ago, I found a phrase he’d written on the white board in the kitchen. All it said was “5 a.m. Nepholopsia.”

“What the hell does that mean?” I said while making coffee.

Oliver chuckled, then went on to describe an elaborate dream he’d had that night in which he was stuck on an alien planet where anthropomorphic clouds turned menacing and “murderously” tipped over the Land Rover he was driving — “a cloud nightmare,” he added, as if it were hardly his first. He had written the note upon waking at 5 a.m., so as not to forget it. (He reported his dreams to the Freudian psychoanalyst he saw twice a week.) “Nepholopsia,” he told me, “either means ‘seeing clouds’ or ‘being enveloped by clouds.’” His brow furrowed — wait a moment, now he wasn’t so sure. “Let’s look it up in the good book,” and together we proceeded straight to the OED (“My Bible,” as Oliver, a devout atheist, often referred to it).

There, we found variations on “nephology,” meaning the study of clouds (from the Greek root “nephos”), but no “nepholopsia.” Turns out, he’d accidentally coined the word. We laughed about this, but in fact it wasn’t the first time. Oliver made up “musicophilia,” meaning an intense love of music, which hadn’t existed before he came up with it as the title for his 2007 book. (But he was always quick to point out that “musicophobia”a hatred of music — had long been part of the English language. He felt that musicophobia appreciated his invention: “Now it has an antonym,” he observed.)

It was this love of words — etymophilia, if you will — and of the act of writing (which he considered a form of thinking) that moved Oliver to tell me one day shortly after I’d moved to New York in the spring of 2009, “You must keep a journal!” It was not a suggestion but an instruction.

I followed his advice straightaway, writing that exchange down on a scrap of paper, which I still have to this day. I hadn’t kept a journal since I was a teenager, but I began chronicling impressions of my life in New York and — when they were just too fantastic to resist — lines spoken by Oliver himself, a near daily occurrence. He was, simply put, chronically quotable.

My New York journal grew and grew as the years passed but I never reread it — not until I decided to write a memoir about my life in New York and with Oliver. I thought reading it would jog my memory. Instead, I found something truly surprising: Parts of the book had already been written — scenes and long stretches of dialogue between Oliver and me — as if they’d quietly been waiting for me to hear them again.

Although Oliver did not live to see me complete that book, “Insomniac City,” I am sure he would not have been surprised that it had its genesis in a journal. After all, many of his own essays, articles and book ideas originated in one of his handwritten journals.

Now, three years after Oliver’s death on Aug. 30, 2015, so many of his words are still with me, still make me smile, still move me. Not long after he received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, for instance, he looked up from his desk one night and said something seemingly out of the blue that I will never forget: “The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”

While he happened to say this to me, I sensed that he also meant it for others, for anyone anywhere who loves words as much as Oliver Sacks did.

Bill Hayes is the author of “Insomniac City,” a memoir that recounts his life in New York City and his relationship with Oliver Sacks.

Recent Essays

Essay Archives