Spider n. (Skinner thinks this word softened from spinder or spinner, from spin; Junius, with his usual felicity, dreams that it comes from σπιδειν, to extend; for the spider extends its web. Perhaps it comes from speiden, Dutch, or spyden, Danish, to spy, to lie upon the catch. Dor, ðora Saxon, is beetle, or properly a humble bee or stingless bee. May not the spider by spy dor, the insect that watches the door?): The animal that spins a web for flies.
Trolmydames n. s.: of this word I know not the meaning.
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
A tip for users: when choosing the right word to shout at a departing figure, concentrate on how much your throat can handle.
The door slammed behind you an hour ago, which means I must have been sitting on the bed like this for a smidge over two. I’ve only just noticed the spider up there, however, Miss Muffetting a ragtime beat untimidly above the curtain-rail. It is making come-hither gestures at me. Valiant, I throw the closest thing to hand directly at it. The closest thing to hand happens to be your pyjamas which you had forgotten to pack.
Aphaeresis is the process whereby a word loses its initial sound or sounds, as in ’twas and knock. Sounds are lost from the ends of words through apocope, literally ‘cutting off’: you can see it in the dangling useless b of a tail trailing, dumbly, behind lamb, the silent b of a lame dumb lamb, where b is a tuft of wool left on the wire once the flock’s moved on, a ghost-marker.
Apocope comes from a different root than apocalypse, to disclose.
The thrown pyjamas got halfway to the spider then crumpled in mid-air. They became floor. In the same way that when a black cat yawns there is a sudden unexpected new colour and potential violence to the equation of a scene, your crumpled silk pyjamas changed the room. They sprawled a glowing chalk outline on the carpet. The spider responds to my inroads upon his personal space by making his life all about the word ‘akimbo’, attempting to spell it out with his anatomy as he sits there above the curtain-rail. He seems proud in his great bulk; he’s fat with his own silk and beckoning, and he is the whole point of this room now that you’ve gone. The spider, and the silk pyjamas that are now part of the floor. I think I shall throw this paperweight at him later.
The warp and the weft of wordiness, wordlessness: its devices are more subtle than this pantomime of gaping that I’ve been directed at the door behind you. One whole hour staring at a door, thinking of the Right Thing to say. The brothers Grimm wrote a popular dictionary that outsold all their monster tales, and it was far from itsy-bitsy. Perhaps this spider is sat there making dream-catchers for me, an attic of thought in intense, gossamer chaos. I try shouting at the spider. He moves. He can make a web, a network to span a gap that I could not cross by crawling. He is immune to his own glue. Otherworldly little architect: well may his noun be found somewhere between spice and spigot.
I try out some other choice words on him.
Even though it’s dark, noticing the spider was the prompt I needed and I leave the house to get rid of your silk pyjamas. It feels like there is an etiquette to be observed, that you cannot just chuck silk pyjamas in a domestic bin that you then have to live around, and the council frowns on bonfires.
In dire straits, cobwebs can be compacted to make excellent DIY poultices to staunch blood. Even better, Sussex folklore recommends spiders in cases of jaundice, prescribing ‘a live spider rolled up in butter’. But I am not marching all the way to Sussex, there must be a bin somewhere in London anonymous enough for your left pyjamas.
‘There’s no prey here anymore,’ I say the spider, softly, silkily but with an edge, like those ribbons in the expensive books that we decided not to open in case it hurts their spines.
There is a spider in the Philippines that uses insect corpses and jungle debris to build spider-shaped decoys in its web. There is a quotation in an article about their discovery: ‘One spider that had recently moulted had integrated his shed skin into the decoy.’
The word geek had its first recorded use in 1919, and was defined with this quotation: ‘A performer at a carnival or circus whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live animal’. So I look up, I am forever looking up, words, references, up at spiders, and read about Mike the Headless Chicken, circus performer, died in 1947: he collapsed in a motel in Phoenix, Arizona; Mike the headless chicken has collapsed, oh get up Mike we love you, rise from Phoenix, please Mike.
Geek also exists as a verb: 1. intr., : To give up, to back down; to lose one’s nerve. It must have been fewer than two hours that I spent staring at the door you slammed. I am stomping down somewhere around Bloomsbury, thinking that one could have roasted a fish on that glare you gave as you left. We had never fought before, such a thing would have seemed ludicrous, row a nonsense word; I would sooner expect a Hammond organ to replace your tongue. But it was no smarting tingle of a row, but rather just explanations. Clear, concise: I was the grumble, you the perfect chord. Problems included the rush to fit as many new words in my mouth, the obvious discrepancies; you silk, me wool from the lame dumb lamb, fol de rol de trolmydame, and here I am near the Mall thinking of all the work the un-butter-fled worms had to put in so that you could have silk pyjamas to leave for me to throw at a spider.
It strikes me that any words that I can think up now, that I could have said to you, are false friends, imaginary friends. I could never stand the way you licked your thumb before you turned a page. I’m a little lost.
When London’s late and undefined like this, when you imagine that lamps are being lit only to scorch the moths and the clouds make a candy-colour of the evening, the passersby here have conversations that marble like end-papers, beginning and end, and that one just there with the umbrella looked a bit like you as they passed but the spider and I could tell the way you use vowels is entirely different, that the breeze coming through just-open teeth made heavy with expectation of a – yawn? a yawp? a rejoinder? – is entirely different, you are not carrying an umbrella near me as I look for a place to throw away your pyjamas, close call, though, and I’m a little lost for words and you were already through the door when a yarn unspooled somewhere inside me and tongued from the root of your tongue to your fingers on the door to the root of a word, finding the index of the book, the nervous-root of a bookmark that makes a book into a map, that networks me over, wherever did you find these?, silk, pursed, sow’s, chaff, ear, the chaff re-burnt in the wander of the heat of the said and the solid golden meat of a goodbye, spider-fed, and I don’t believe a word of it
You had knocked knowing I was at my desk, dreading nothing. I, no doubt, was performing all those actions that one makes with one’s mouth when one doesn’t realise one is being watched by a spider: chewing at a lip, the momentum of an eyebrow, frowning like brow-skin can shirk the ideas and connections that can be made, steepling my hands with something approaching disclarity of thought.
I remember that you once threw a book at me. You too, pyjama-wise, missed your mark and it fell out of the open window. We read somewhere that if a book gets wet, you should freeze it. A domestic fridge will do in a pinch: ‘If possible, freeze the book spine down, and supported so it won’t lean or fall over.’
All that editing and book-throwing, and yet I did not have the right thing to say. The door shut behind you.
A tip for users: when working out the right word to shout at a departing figure, remember Hel is other people, and is cognate with Old Frisian helle or hille. In Norse myth the goddess Hel rides in a boat made from dead mens’ fingernails.
A tip for users (Intermediary): when working out the right word to shout at a departing figure, concentrate on tone. This is applicable at any time of the day: unrealised, uncharitable harnessing of a moon-quiver, a sunslice, a hot and unpalatable word that puts too much emphasis on vowels and the parting of a mouth and the opening of a window through which a book of pyjamas can be thrown, a breath silver and polished newly-convex in the water, a pigeons’ parentheses of wings, nape-shots, shots of coffee I’d bring to you one morning, a deviation of form from a set or acceptable path, and a chicanery of purpose, or a resettling of livery, a duck, ill-liveried and fingerless; this is a way of saying that a duck is chuckling darkly in the London park where traditionally spies meet as I toddle around still searching for a bin.
I know what the tense future holds. I’ll be heckling the spider for days pretending it is you, esprit d’escalier, the spy that watches the staircase. He’ll seem appreciative of the discourse, he’ll waggle appreciatively. With watchers: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true. Tip for beginners: spiders are not great conversationalists. There is the understanding that they do not have this, the fingerprint that touches your face, that covers so much electricity and so much inelastic blood and bone that is really no more than re-compacted chalk. I’ll maybe say something obscene to the spider, and with the unspellable pressure of eight legs winching in on themselves, the slow scud of disapproval, each of the spiders legs will bend forward as he laughs at me, each leg in exactly the same position as the angle-poise lamp on the desk.
The entomology/etymology puns are obvious. The word ‘insect’ comes from ‘that which is cut in pieces or engraved/segmented’. Now, that could be a door opening, a window opening, a door closing, a mouth opening; Big Sam Johnson tells us ‘a tarantula is an “an insect whose bite is cured only by music”’. Words on the page, give me excess of them, crabbed and spidery, but as I try to say the right word to check you at the door I found they are a mouthful of wasps: dead, the sting removed. It should be action. To punch the moon from its purchase in order that I might serve you tea upon it, when language I should have had at my fingerprints becomes just some kind of soft and unpleasantly buckled mirror, hazy with unexpected fingerprints and useless words, unpinnable.
When all my words are boiled down, frozen, re-dried: without you, London is just 1) n. the angle between this lamp-post and this brick wall’s ivy, and all its angled heads, probably filled with spiders 2) n. this nameless street 3) n. this rubbish bin there, where I feed your silks.
A tip for users: when working out the right word to shout at a departing figure, be carried away in the truthlessness of definition. Ours was a sprained sky, and birds sparked out from the new-bent joist of it. Be Headless Mike in Phoenix. Be the dumb lame lamb. Weave your new network, toss and turn, and spin it out.