Sunday, March 25, 2007

In a Word

There has been such turmoil in my life I thought my blog today should be a little nonsensical, maybe frivolous. But I’ll get back to that tomorrow.

When we were driving through Clarenden last week I noticed a sign that said that a new store would have 'artisanus' cocktails, but David said I was nuts and the ending was anas not anus. What in the world kind of a place are they opening, I thought. I asked David if he had ever heard that word before I saw the sign? He said 'yes, but you’re pronouncing it incorrectly.' I called him a liar and I said, “Since you know what it means, how do you pronounce it?” He didn’t answer me but started to laugh and recalled a Saturday Night Live where three fake stars were playing Jeopardy. The Sean Connery character chose ‘anal bum cover’ as his topic and the Alex Trebeck character had to correct him with “that’s An Album cover, Sir.” My point, and I must have one, is that I never did get the pronunciation of the mysterious new word.

When we got home I looked it up in the dictionary and there was an Astasanus who died in 1330. But nothing else that even came close. He insisted we spell it the correct way, as opposed to the way they had it on the store (I’m sure I’m right) and it is someone who has artisan skills. I have always been curious about words that contain other words, especially words like anal or anus, but I can’t tell you why so let’s not go there. My tuchas is fine. I have to admit that when, on a rare occasion I am forced to discuss Uranus, the planet, I am reluctant to pronounce the word. I know that may be puritanical but it makes me uncomfortable.

The first time I heard the word preternaturally, I did not have a dictionary and I was most curious about what it meant. You know how you think you have never heard a word, then you hear it, and then you don’t stop hearing it. Well, that’s what happened with preternaturally. It seemed to be used mostly in articles that were preternaturally pretentious. So I decided that I would start to use it in situations where people were feigning importance—or they found themselves in a position where the only power they had was when they could say 'no'. Like the maitre d’ in a restaurant -- and it didn’t have to be fine dining. Here’s what I do when I am in a situation where I ask if there is a table available at a place that clearly has room and the host/hostess wants me to think they have sole responsibility for decisions concerning the people who get to sit at one of their usually tableclothed tables. I say, “Do you know what preternaturally means?” I have never had anyone respond with a yes. They usually look at me inquisitively and say “No”. And I say, as nicely as I can (usually shaking my head), "Oh, I’m so sorry” and walk away. I don’t know if this simple question about a big word is a leveler, but I always get a table within minutes. I guess I could just say, “what’s with the attitude you pretentious idiot," but that’s much too confrontational and this is about words not actions.

Yesterday, when I was having coffee with my colleague Paul, we started to talk about semantics. As a result of an undergraduate class I had in college, whenever I heard the word semantics I would run screaming from the room. Semantics is defined in the dictionary as 'the study of how meaning is created by the use and interrelationships of word, sentences, and phrases.' You see why I ran from the room. What the hell are they talking about !!!!!!!! , seemed to benign a response, so I was forced to flee. But what it comes down to is that meanings are in people, not in words. There are those of us who think bitch is a bad word and others who think it’s a dog. It is both. The tone of a voice can change the meaning of a word. It’s why e-mail or blogs are so dangerous. Remember, meanings are in people not in words – so no one ever knows what anyone means when the word is written not spoken. Other factors that impact on meaning are the situation, how the word is used and by whom. How confusing it is to mean anything. I don’t know why I’m sharing this useless information except to say, we all have favorite words. (Whew, that was a leap.)

My favorite word is tapioca. I love the soft sound of this pudding like substance. In fact, when I was a small child and even though I didn’t like the taste, I forced myself to eat it. I think I like it now but I don’t know if it’s a consequence of the sound or my taste buds changed. Soozie likes the word 'palindrome'. She likes it because of what it is. No, I’m not going to make you look it up. It describes a word that is spelled the same way backwards and forwards (i.e. "atta" as in 'atta boy!'). Her second favorite is douche bag — which can be a device or might be a personality trait. Anyway, words are amazing. Especially English words because the language is so vast and complicated. As an example, we used to play a game called “Dictionary”. You would locate an enormous dictionary. Then one player would go through it and pick a word they were sure no one could define. Everyone who was playing would write a dictionary-like definition—including the person who knew what it meant. Then the chairman would read them aloud, and all the players would try to pick out the real meaning. It was all about the presentation. I once defined a kibitka as “a miraculous recovery." Everyone thought that was the correct definition when actually a kibitka is a small horse-drawn Russian wagon — but even in "Fiddler on the Roof”, they didn’t call it that.

My point is (and I have one), is it any wonder that there are so many communication problems throughout the world? There are too many cultures, too many people, too many languages and too many words so no one is ever sure of the meaning, intention or spelling of any word. Maybe we should eliminate sounds and writing and go with a universal sign language. Maybe that is the answer; and just think about the entertainment factor when you are trying to convey a sentence about ‘Uranus’. We’re just sayin...Iris


Walter Briggs said...

Yup,I still cannot name off the planets without misspronouncing (?)
and chuckling at that ONE planetary body..or anatomical region..

JKai said...

So, I'm sitting in class and your money is being so well spent that I decided to check the blog (don't worry its an ethics class,not something important like Jazz Dance 3) That said, as I usually do I am parked in the back row of a large class room with my mac and I think my class thinks i'm crazy because I've been laughing out loud. I mean, literally, out loud. anus. HAHAHA.
thought you should know how much joy it brought to my day.

Anonymous said...

just returned from China - speaking of several meanings for words...get ya' in lots of trouble there. I am so enjoyng your blogs and all that has to do with the Chronicles. Thanks for the entertainment that is so much better than tv - hence I am sitting in front of this screen nitely.

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Fire Detection said...

yes I'm totally agree, is so curious that the significant of a simple word changes a lot for the tone the people use to said it1!!!
awesome blog