“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe.
I always thought I had a pretty good vocabulary. Until I went back to school in my fifties. As the youngest of the family, I listened and learned from those older than me. I had access to books and was an avid reader throughout my childhood. Moving to Jamaica from the UK at age 8 I added to my vocabulary by learning through praxis (another word I learned when I went back to school!). I listened, observed, imitated, recognized meaning through context and often made mistakes. But that was part of the active process of learning on the job.
When you have a father who would always answer a question about a word’s meaning by telling you to ‘go and look it up’, you develop good habits and learn an important lesson. When someone gives you something that you didn’t work to get, you don’t appreciate it and soon forget it. When you have to look for something, actively think about how it is spelled, see those several definitions and the weird symbols that supposedly tell you how it is pronounced (/prəˈnounst/), it is more likely to remain in your vocabulary. Of course, if you don’t then use it, you will find yourself having to look it up again.
I remember being insulted by a young man once. I was trying to flirt with him, thought I was being funny, when he told me to stop being so ‘puerile’. I did not know how to react, it was only his tone of voice that let me know I was being insulted. I had to wait till I got home to discover he had accused me of being childish! For all I know he had only just learned the word himself! I certainly never forgot the word!
It is an amazing thing, the ability of humans to communicate with each other in a variety of ways. We can read a book and be transported to a part of the world we have never visited. We can hear music and be moved to tears. We can look at clouds and see whole vistas or zoos, turning suggestions into a panorama in our minds. Babies can be shown objects with two eyes, a nose and a mouth and react as if they are looking at a human face. We are programed to understand each other, to share common experiences through stories, pictures, actions. And yet mankind chooses to kill his fellow man.
It was when I went back to school some years ago that I struggled the most with words and their definitions. These were words that only appear in academic works; words with technical meaning, specific to the disciplines of philosophy, statistics, research. I would not only have to look up definitions, I would have to write them down, then look them up again, then repeat. Wait, what does emic mean again? I could not read the textbooks and articles without having to pause, look up, read again.
One word that challenged me was existentialism. I associated it with a threat, such as something which threatened your actual existence. I was reading the word in relation to a Nurse Philosopher (Sally Gadow) who had coined the term existential advocacy in describing the way a nurse should advocate for the patient’s right for self-determination. I had to write about her for an assignment, and when I reached out to her she was generous enough to send me copies of her papers. But I needed my handy word search as I read her words. Sometimes the words that reach us are not the highest level, the multi-syllabic impressive words. Sometimes you just have to be authentic like Bob and say: ‘Every man got a right to decide his own destiny’, words in the song Zimbabwe, a country that used his message as an anthem to their self-determination.
As I listen to stories about a nation that is facing an existential crisis, I realize I have never had to worry about my own life like that. Many of the citizens of Ukraine are facing their mortality on a daily basis. Descriptions of people without water and food, being told that if their loved ones die they are to put them out on the street (or bury them if you can) is a level of despair most of us can only imagine. And the people of Ukraine are not the only people who face such decisions every day.
On this Friday morning I am appreciating the simple fact that I can go about my business without having to worry about being shelled, or where to find water for a cup of tea. By an accident of birth I have not had to wonder whether my children will survive their childhood. By an accident of geography, I can have my beliefs, my politics, make my choices freely. And read whatever books I like.
This weekend I hope you recognize all of the simple pleasures in life that you take for granted. I hope that you can continue to enjoy the freedom to communicate however and with whomever you wish. And I challenge you to learn one new word a day!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!