Sunday, April 17, 2016

Building My Vocabulary One Mishap at a Time

I recall an elementary school teacher who set aside some time at the end of
each week to highlight one student in the class.  The main activity had the
student perched in front while each of their classmates gave a short,
usually one word, description of the person.  I wish I'd have known about
statistics because experiments would have revealed certain trends that my
memory reproduces only in part. The main feature was that every week the
same words were applied --- nice, funny, cute, friendly, kind, happy, cool
--- along with  simple synonyms for the same sentiment.  Early on some wag
added supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and it stuck around for a few cycles
until the teacher recommended against it.

I cannot recall who made the observation regarding the limited word choice
or who made the suggestion to build our vocabulary, but when I tell this
story I credit Curt M.  Poring over the dictionary to find great
words for the weekly encouragement ritual was actually fun, but not as
fruitful as I expected. Certainly there was never a shortage of words that
were unfamiliar or used unexpected letter combinations or were just plain
long.  The problem was that they were from fields of study that just did
not apply; calling someone zygomorphic or a crossopterygian may sound neat
but is meaningless.

Curt and I shared our discoveries, until one day I found a word that
met most of my criteria; it was descriptive and reasonably short, had an
interesting sound and unexpected letter combination, and best of all was
obscure.  Its main drawback was its slightly unkind meaning.  I was not
wont to cruelty in any measure, but I desperately wanted to use this
new-found word and I thought that Curt would appreciate the back story if I
used it on his day, and especially how it avoided censorship --- security
through obscurity.

When he sat in front of the class the normal adjectives sprang from the
minds and mouths of my classmates while I sat with bated breath to release
this rare bird of a word into the room and onto the blackboard.  Apologetic
for the minor slight I was about to pronounce on my friend, but bolstered
by enthusiasm for the word itself, I enunciated and emphasized each
syllable slowly:
Curt is ... me-di-O-cre.
Filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment I sat with a smirk, for
less than half a second before the teacher said to use a different
adjective.  Apparently that word was not off in the corners, and this
teacher knew that I had just described Curt having only moderate ability.
Now I was doubly-mortified, because the teacher understood that I had just
put someone down and he had understood the word that I had thought was
nearly impenetrable by the censor.

To that day I attribute two lessons and several resolutions.  While I do
not recall holding the teacher in low regard for his intellect I certainly
learned that it is easy to underestimate others.  Almost as a corollary, I
learned that without context and a base of understanding it is easy to
overestimate one's own knowledge and ability.  I look back on that event as
one of my earliest memories for a desire to deeply learn and appreciate the
English language.  I also recognize it as a starting point to be more
objective about the abilities of others, and especially to expect that
others will often know more than me and that if I am open I might learn
from them.  In general, I also attach this incident to others like it that
make clear that kindness is better than cruelty.  In particular, I wish
that I had found and used a better word for Curt like affable or
perspicacious.

Years of continued learning in language and science and life make clear
that in the end, it is high praise to be described as kind, friendly, and
wise. They may be simple words, but they tell a deep story of a person's
positive impact on the world.

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