A short screed against the word ‘heft’
Flicking open a book in a bookshop yesterday I was brought up short by the word ‘heft’. What a foul, pestilent, egregious word that is, I thought. I shuddered and replaced the book. Part of the shudder, I think, is that I recognised the appeal of it, its restrained physicality, the way it codes its silent, domineering sexual vitality within a very bourgeois respect for the objectitude of objects, the thingness of things.
I’m talking about ‘heft’ as an abstract noun, the use of ‘heft’ in fiction to denote a certain relationship not just between a character and the thing they have in their hand (the thing they have in their hand), but between the prose itself and the illusory world it would have you take as real.
It’s the ultimate realist word, a word that makes you feel the weight of the world of the novel in the weight of the word itself – and, of course, oh so cleverly, you have the book in your hand, as you read it, as a kind of promissory note, or guarantee. The word is underwritten by the very object, this codex, that carries it. If you’re reading this on a computer monitor, the word ‘heft’ has no such physiological back-up; on a mobile phone, a little; but if you were reading it in a book, in a novel – especially if you were reading it in a paperback of a certain size – then it would carry with it a certain thrill, almost synaesthetic in its exactitude.
‘Heft’. It’s a good Anglo-Saxon word. The OED has it as probably deriving from ‘heave’ (on the analogy ‘cleave/cleft’, ‘weave/weft’) which only reinforces my suspicion that there is something sexual about the word: a blunt, opaque term for something that is difficult to define but easy to recognise. The menacing fricative of the ‘f’, shot home and released by the stop of the ‘t’. It’s the sound of something being pushed, or forced, into something else.
I read the word and shuddered, because the usage made me think I had done something similar. So, in a fit of self-flagellation I’ve search my hard drive for examples of it and am pleased to report, to loudly proclaim, that I have never used ‘heft’ as a noun in my fiction. ‘Hefty’ is there, of course, in my book reviewing (oh, it is such a good word, in that context, implying so much, in such a short space), and ‘heft’ is there, as a verb, in a couple of instances:
‘And these,’ hefting the books to show her the spines
He has wrested the television remote free from Gabriella and hefts it, held loose in his hand, his fingers outstretched, like a half-surrendered gun.
The second gives something of the sense I’m after: of someone proving the reality of the world by themselves measuring the weight of it, the way you heft your car keys in your hand, as if absent-mindedly – as if to test their weight against yourself. That is far enough, perhaps too far. I hereby abjure the word ‘heft’. It shall not pass from my pen.
I’ve always liked the word. You have unnerved me.