The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, June 19, 2006

Unwrapping the precious word

by Tamara J Lee

Do you remember uncovering the mystery of a word? You'd see the word, and with your young mind's pronunciation, skimmed over it, but didn't really embrace it. Maybe it wasn't yours to have at the moment, perhaps it seemed too precious. But precious, how? Was it a Latinate, and so somehow verboten? Or maybe it was a little terrifying, long and sensuous and surely more than little ol' you could handle. What's your relationship to that word now? Have you conquered it, used it to all meaninglessness, the poor thing. Or have you dabbed it sparingly into your work, just a hint of black in the corner of your blue Bob Ross sky.

I remember encountering words like loquacious and onomatopoeia. Latinates both frightened and intrigued me. They had letter combinations I couldn't fully make sense of, but I was certain I should know them because they were there on the page of the English book I was reading. Latinates seemed to roll themselves out onto the page like red carpets to galas I was too young to attend.

Trying to uncover words goes all the way back to my semi-literate years, struggling to read the French on the cereal box, studiously comparing the two opposing sides—quintessential Canadian child of the '70s, I was—and wondering why the French version was always twice as long as the English. Surely, the translators were providing more detail to the French. It was a conspiracy, with misleading clues using words that looked familiar; it's the in-between words that held all the truth, I concluded. As I yearned to uncover those truths on the other side of the Cheerio's box, my fascination with language took root in me, sitting there at the kitchen table eating fortified cereal with extra sugar I'd snuck into the bowl.

Those were the years I tried my mind at spelling bees, and managed well enough. But dissecting a word into its basic parts, into its consonants and vowels lined up like a string of dead multi-coloured Christmas lights, was anything but satisfying. It was nothing like the illumination I felt when I would come across a new word and read it over and over, front-wards and back, so it felt like I was slinking through every curl and hole of the script, rubbing myself up against it and marking my scent, whether I understood the word or not. I just knew I liked it and that was enough.

Deliberately researching a word's meaning and correct pronunciation didn't come until later. Learning that plethora, for example, is pronounced much differently from what I'd imagined was startling, unnerving. It meant the word had been a lie, had been harbouring a secret from me, and so I needed to reacquaint myself with it. Sometimes, I'll admit, when this would happen, I just didn't seem to like the word as much, once I got to know it better.

I'd write down the new-found words, a fancy trick I learned in elementary school, a dozen times or more and concentrate on those most intricate details, the 'q' squiggles and the 'i' dots; but I was never an elaborate squiggly q-tail type or a girly i-dotter. Those girls who put dumb hearts over their 'i'’s, those girls and I would never understand one another, and we were destined to know words differently.

New words find themselves in the damnedest places now: in the top corners of journals, written several times onto scraps of paper, or on invoices, or phone bills. As if writing them down will tattoo them into memory, but it never really works. Instead, when I see them now, I approach them with a similar curiosity, and sometimes reverence, wondering what I'm going to do with a new word, now that I've found it again. Should I keep it? Put it to work for me? Or should I merely glance over it, a stranger on the bus I'll possibly see again sometime on that route?

I'm still struggling with my French language skills, but my reading comprehension is far superior to my speaking skills. I can thank cereal boxes for that. But now it's the slight variations between the French and English words that often confuse me, as my mind's tongue gets tied up with my bad accent. It takes me twice as long to say anything in French, but the truth that I was once convinced was hidden in the in-between parts is now just my child-like fumbling at second-language acquisition, trying to wrap my tongue (ma langue) around those still-mysterious words.


Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

I had the same impression about the French on the cereal boxes, Tamara. I couldn't understand why they were getting so much more detail. Great post, brought back a lot of memories of a time when I would constantly set words aside for the dictionary. Brought back some guilt, too, 'cause I always forgot to look 'em up.

Mon Jun 19, 12:21:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Interesting post, Tamara. What I hated as a kid was mispronouncing a word and getting laughed at. So I was keen to learn phonics and I listened carefully when others said unfamiliar words. My father was a great teacher, too. Whenever I asked what a word meant, he sent me to the huge family dictionary to look it up. Words are sure important, aren't they? What's a good word for bitter disappointment at the Oilers' loss?

Mon Jun 19, 11:17:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks, guys.

Oh, yes, I loved the dictionary, and remember reading one front to back when I was about 8. I don't think I retained much; I was more fascinated by the thesaurus, I think.

As far as the word you're seeking, Tricia: You're asking a Vancouverite ;)

Mon Jun 19, 11:33:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

So, is Vancouver not in Canada? I guess disconsolate would have been a good word, but I got over it pretty fast, so maybe something less dramatic.

Tue Jun 20, 06:03:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

onomatopoeia. This has long been one of my favorite words, I too love how it feels in my mouth, on my tongue. I must increase my vocabulary, words are a wonderous thing, thanks Tamara. xo

Fri Jun 23, 07:00:00 pm GMT-4  

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