Where does life take us when we follow the prepositions?
I learned to call crossing words and confusing phrases, grammatically correct but semantically twisted, “word salad” from David Kelley. I love the toss-up, but I’ll note for the record that Word Salad is real, a serious condition that can accompany mental illness. In Boston Legal, Mr. Kelley gave his main character, sassy and otherwise healthy Alan Shore, a bad case of randomly confusing words. When a crackerjack trial lawyer stands up in court and says things that are utterly nonsensical, it makes for a compelling character change, good drama. When a yoga teacher suggests her students put their hips right under their knees or align wrists over elbows, she confuses her students and undermines the flow of the class. Still I do it, generally when I’m tired, sometimes when the yoga takes my brain over. Usually it’s as simple as confusing right and left; but I’ve been known to ask students to assume table pose, as if crawling on hands and knees, and then tell them to be sure their hips are right under their shoulders, their hands right under their knees. Yoga can be a lot like Twister, but best when it’s intentionally so. When I hear myself in these moments, I blame “word salad,” and move on.
One evening, a class of fifteen students spread out in the back of the church sanctuary where we practice together for an hour on Wednesdays. On this occasion I slipped and suggested their shoulders should be “overneath” their wrists. I paused and repeated, “overneath. What do you suppose that means? It sounds like a yoga term.” I let it go and moved on, but I was captivated with my stumble and kept thinking about it.
Sometimes a new word feels like a gift. It turns out I was not the only one captivated. One of my dear regulars, Kate, the next week suggested an apt usage: the clouds are overneath the sky. It’s the perfect image for the word. Look into the sky, the clouds are overhead. And they are underneath the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars, the atmosphere. The clouds are overneath the sky.
Ever more intrigued, I went to the web. Overneath doesn’t merit any standard dictionary definitions, but there are about 47,800 hits for the word, the top few mostly pointing to a band in Michigan. Both the Online Slang Dictionary and the Urban Dictionary define it as opposite underneath. But that doesn’t seem right to me. Here’s my submission in case anyone at Webster’s is interested:
overneath \óvərníθ\ prep (2011) : used as a function word to indicate motion or situation in a position both higher than (above) and beneath (below) another <the clouds are ~ the sky> <the stunt woman is ~ it all>.
Yoga is all about prepositions. On the mat. Reach to the right. Kneel up. Drop down into the earth. The practice takes the body, mind and spirit on a journey into over up down next to beside through and out. Babies are like that too—all about up, over, into and away. For me, that’s one of the appeals of yoga—that elementary feeling of movement and discovery.
All of these relationships are expressed through prepositions. It’s worth noting that prepositions are difficult to learn in a new language, because they are idiomatic. Native speakers of English mostly don’t stumble, except when language changes. I remember the very first time I ran smack into a preposition I didn’t understand. On my very first car date no less, the young man who drove his father’s ancient Volvo to our farm to pick me up asked me over dinner, “So, what are you into?”
Into I wondered? It was 1981 and in another year surfer dude Jeff Spicoli would make being into something a household phrase. But that summer I was at a loss as to what my handsome date was talking about.
“You know,” he clarified, “what do you like, like to do?”
“Oh!” I was sixteen—school and music and friends and boys. What else could I be into?
Today I would tell him I’m into yoga and parenting and writing and teaching and deeply, deeply into prepositions. I love them and how they move us in all of our practices from one place to the next. It seems only logical that I’d make one up, tossing it into my word salad and finding that Overneath It All is how I feel most of the time, neither on top nor fully flattened, but somewhere that’s not precisely between, coping as best as I can.