Everyone in my family has a fascination with words. We’re all voracious readers and we trade books back and forth, but that doesn’t fully explain it. I know plenty of people who read a lot, but don’t have quite the same degree of interest in the units of language.
Perhaps it stems from the quizzes Da popped on us when there was too much giggling or scuffling at the dinner table.
Big John (pointing to one of the offenders): You – out to the foyer until I call you back. And you (turning to another miscreant) – Spell obstreperous. And tell me what it means.
Unsuspecting child: Huh? …Uh…U…B…ummm….
Big John: Go get the dictionary and look it up.
Child (pitiful whine): How can I look it up if I don’t know how to spell it???
Mom (aka Pope Pat): John, for heaven’s sake, let them eat!!
It would seem that this kind of ambush might have turned us off to spelling, definitions, and proper usage, but ironically, it managed to fuel the fire of our curiosity. My brother Terry took Latin in high school, and thus became the siblings’ walking reference book (I would periodically open the dictionary to a random page and try to stump him – it was pretty hard to do). Some of us competed in spelling bees, wrote stories and plays, and engaged in Scrabble, Pictionary and Fictionary tournaments. These days (maybe to help stave off those senior moments?) I complete daily crossword puzzles, the harder the better.
Once, during a spate of boredom at college, I decided I would read the entire dictionary; fortunately, the boredom didn’t stick around too long, and unfortunately, neither did my resolve – I don’t think I even managed to get through the A’s. But even now, the dictionary can be my personal version of a time-waster, something like getting sucked into a YouTube film festival. I grab the book to look up a word, and 20 minutes later, find myself lost in a lexicographic labyrinth (alliteration!). Serendipitously, one of those “extraneous” words came in handy in a crossword today, only a little while after I spied it in Webster’s.
I’ve learned new words by the conventional method – sitting in a classroom – and through the more entertaining means of radio, TV, movies, etc. Listening to Jean Shepard through a transistor radio under the covers late at night was a great source of new – and not necessarily Mom-approved – vocabulary. (“Excelsior, you fathead!”) Peevish and peckish, both words I love the sound of, could as easily have been picked up from the nuns at school or, at the opposite end of the reverence spectrum, from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
And to close the circle, Monty Python, that wellspring of so many amusing words (and deeds!), was just the kind of thing that could get us banished from the dinner table.
Big John: What did I hear you say? Where did you get that from?
Soon-to-be-former dinner table companion: Monty Python….
Big John: I thought I told you not to watch that show. Out to the foyer!