Inspired Word of the Week: Asymptote

asymptote [as-im-toht] noun Mathematics

  • A straight line approached by a given curve as one of the variables in the equation of the curve approaches infinity. ( 
  • “straight line continually approaching but never meeting a curve,” 1650s, from Gk. asymptotos “not falling together,” from a- “not” + syn “with” + ptotos “fallen” (Online Etymology Dictionary)
  • A line whose distance to a given curve tends to zero. Asymptote may or may not intersect its associated curve. (The American Heritage(R) Science Dictionary)
SandyInspired Comments: Words are so much more than mere tools of communication for me. I love the way they wrestle with or roll across my lips, and teeth, and tongue. But it’s not just this verbal experience with them. Words are like people. My relationship with a word can evolve over time.
     I first encountered asymptote in my trig class, and I tried to imagine getting closer and closer to something, but never quite reaching it. The idea both intrigued and baffled me, as it is so closely tied to the concept of infinity. To head towards an unmeasurable and boundless space–what does that mean? No matter. It was yet another complex, multi-syllabic word for my young and eager brain to file away.
     Several years later, a man I dated told me that his feelings were asymptotic–they tended towards love, but never quite got there. At the time, asymptote and I had a bit of a falling out, as it were. However, upon further reflection, I had to give the guy grudging credit for using asymptotic in a metaphor to describe his emotions. It wasn’t asymptote’s fault the man and I were incompatible due to an excess of combined nerdiness.
     Yesterday, I found an article in Publisher’s Weekly about an international literary journal: “Young Journal ‘Asymptote’ Takes Literature All Over the World.” Considering my fickle history with the word asymptote and my natural addiction for literature, my curiosity kicked in to high gear. I learned that the editors of Asymptote collaborate on a volunteer basis from various locations around the world. They actively seek out international poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction, and partner with translators to introduce these seminal contemporary works to the English speaking and reading world.
     A free literary journal? Sign me up! And I just had to know why this journal is called “Asymptote.” I went to the journal’s About page and felt a warm, tingly sensation wash over me. These editors throw different languages together in a literary lab and let me see what happens as a result of these “encounters between languages.” I’d just hit a word/literary/language-o-phile jackpot!
     And here … wait for it … lies the reasoning behind the journal’s name: “Though a translation may never fully replicate the original in effect (thus our name, “asymptote”: the dotted line on a graph that a mathematical function may tend towards but never reach), it is in itself an act of creation.” This explanation inspires me on many levels. I’ve been meaning to brush up on the French I learned in college. I’ve always wanted to learn Japanese. And my Vietnamese reading and writing skills could use some work. But I keep telling myself it’s too late; I should have done all of this when I was younger. I tell myself I don’t have the time. Well, I’ll never be an expert in all of these languages, but I can still set the curve in motion with my eye on that multilingual asymptote, and with each new effort, I’ll get closer. Similarly, the poetry and fiction I write, and the images I draw will never reach the perfection I imagine. But they’ll never be created if I don’t begin with that first word or pencil stroke.
     I admire the editors of Asymptote for their vision and dedication, and I will visit the site often to expose myself to international perspectives and soak up inspiration. The journal aims to release four issues a year, with the next issue going live on October 14. I encourage you to check it out: Asymptote.