Daily Archives: July 24, 2021

bric-a-brac

Propped up on bricks and in brackets, strewn on shelves, or locked away in boxes, the assorted flotsam and jetsam of life decorates – or clutters, depending on whom you ask – the home of anyone who’s lived long enough. Knick-knacks, widgets, tchotch, stuff, junk… bric-a-brac. A bricolage of half-forgotten fancies, lost moments, gifts, souvenirs, lapses of reason: the tritest detritus to treat us to. Old but not antique, antique but not vintage, vintage but not valuable, collected here and there, à bricq et à bracq.

And what does that mean, à bricq et à bracq? Oh, you know… willy-nilly, hither and thither, by hook and by crook. It’s just some bit of made-up fancy that came from somewhere and means something somehow. Seemed cute at the time, know what I mean? Anyway, stuff collected à bricq et à bracq (or, per Littré, de bric et de broc) is what came to be called in French bric-à-brac, and from that we get our English word, bric-a-brac, exactly the same except with the diacritical broken off (maybe it’s in a drawer somewhere) and said as English rather than as French.

This is all the stuff you’re supposed to KonMari out of your life: pick it up, peek for a spark of joy, and chuck it when the battery check of memory fails to give a faint glow. But is it KonMari or Kobayashi Maru? If you chuck it you have deleted a trace of your life, axing your tree at the roots, feeling an instant pang of regret at the inevitability of evanescence, but if you keep it you feel weighed down and trapped by it – and whoever lives with you will surely set phasers to “ablate.” It looks like a no-win: you realize that this is all the sorts of things that in the modern era we bury ourselves with, just as ancients would fill their tombs with bracelets and bangles and glimpses of golden glory. If you let it go, you lose immortality; if you keep it, you are always already in your self-made tomb. 

But wait: reprogram it. If each one brings a spark of joy, then you have a constellation of memory and fascination brightening your space, and each star is a world of its own when you choose to visit it.

But look. I mean listen. I mean both. However imbricated with bric-a-brac our homes may be, like some Kubrickian back-lot prop shop or a cubist still-life by Braque, our language is doubly, triply, quadruply so. The imperial excursions and intercultural contacts that English has had have left it laden with lexis reflecting every encounter; you may have a drawer full of bottle openers, a cupboard full of shotglasses, a cabinet full of souvenir bells, but our language is the ultimate box of bric-a-brac; it has six or eight words for any of many things that could get away with just one. Ah, yes, they all have different tones, different memories, different practicalities, but… is it really so many little sparks of joy, or is it mostly just dust of especially large particle size?

Or does it matter? Our vocabulary, like the night sky, is infinitely capacious. It fills the rooms of our lives without overfilling our living room. (Ignore that stack of dictionaries and style guides behind my armchair.)