Awash in words
I believe in the pith, the power, the pain, and the play of words. My father, an attorney, was my first wordsmith. He taught me to savor words. At the dinner table, I lapped up words as if I were Scout listening to Atticus…. deterrent, racism, panacea, anoint, exacerbate, eschew, espouse.
Verbs and nouns are my favorites, though like Humpty Dumpty. I am apt to tell you that “of course you don’t know what I mean by ‘glory’–it means ‘a nice knock-down argument.’” I balk when Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that he knows how to be the master of words. What braggadocio!
The other day I told my son that his claim to be the best driver on the road is braggadocio. He retorted, “Use a real word!”
Like my son, I prefer muscular, Anglo-Saxon words if they nestle into meaning–cave rather than chamber, halt rather than terminate, gut rather than eviscerate. Sometimes the fitting word is uncommon–Shakespeare doesn’t merely please; he enthralls. When I practice and teach yoga, I move into trikonasana; the Sanskrit word epitomizes my immersion in the yoga posture triangle.
Recently my daughter wrote on her blog from Costa Rica that her company’s workers had settled a “well-mannered strike.” She contrasted the Spanish “la huegla” to the French word for strike, “la grève,” so named because the word also means “river bank,” where early French strikers would gather. “La grève” reminds me of grief, and I ponder the salve of words.
When I taught English in high school and college, students thought they needed a bigger vocabulary to be successful. They would try out such ripostes as “Sophomoric!” or “Where’s the gravitas?” Yet Martin Luther King’s straightforward words–“I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my home town”–awed my students. And they relished the simple elegance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Pluck from memory a rooted sorrow.”
Still, no words can master truth. At a funeral for a friend who died at age 55, the rabbi told mourners that if we dwelled on her brain death, we would defile her memory. Instead, the rabbi and the Denver mayor spoke of Leslie Fishbein’s charity, humor, friendship. As the family filed out of the sun-spangled sanctuary, someone sobbed. Grief unbounded by words. Stained-glass windows played with light as silence resounded…her smile, our sorrow. Solace?
“Hush,” my mother would croon to her babies. Vaulting over a dictionary definition, hush cocooned us in her love.
After my dad died, I wrote about fishing with him in Colorado lakes and streams. From age four, I heard the words that taught me to grab a worm, bait a hook, spot telltale ripples, scale and gut fish, give thanks, taste trout, savor hush puppies.
In the final year of his life, my dad began losing his vast vocabulary. The last time I saw him, at age 84, he said, “I love you.”
And the rest is silence.
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