I wonder if any of you have a memory like this?
I must have been about two or three years old. Either way, my brother, who is fifteen months younger than me, was still in a high chair. I remember that we were on holiday and staying in a holiday apartment or hotel (I’m not sure which). My brother was being fed a boiled egg in his high chair and Dad was talking to Mum.
There are three reasons why I remember this early childhood scene from this particular holiday. The first is that this was when we discovered that my brother didn’t like eggs. The second was that this holiday included my first ever visit to the cinema – a rerelease of Disney’s Pinocchio. And the third was that I noticed Dad using a word I hadn’t noticed before – ‘but’.
Learning a new word
Of course, my Dad, and everyone else, would have used ‘but’ in conversation around me on a daily basis, but this was the first time I actively noticed the word. I can remember turning it over in my mind, trying to determine what it meant. At that age, most words seem to have a direct correlation to an object, activity or sensation. The furry thing is ‘cat’; running around outside is called ‘playing’; that feeling in my tummy is described by pointing at it and shouting ‘hungry’. It was breakfast, and Dad was buttering toast (either for himself or for some ill-fated egg soldiers), so for a long time I thought it must have something to do with butter (I still have this association in my head today). Still, I just couldn’t satisfy myself with what it meant. What was a ‘but’?
I can’t remember if I asked Dad what it meant. If I had done, I’m sure it would have been an extremely difficult explanation. How do you define ‘but’ to a toddler? Still, at some point I must have worked it out without any tutoring on the nature of conjunctions and how they relate to contrary phrases. The way children ingest and learn language is fascinating. Just think for one moment of the gargantuan task involved in not only realising that all those noises have meaning but in then deconstructing and understanding them sufficiently to imitate the same skills.
“A new word! What do I do?”
Sadly, for most people, the acquisition of new words and the willingness to study, improve and learn better language skills is rare. Beyond a certain age, most people take language for granted, assume they know enough words and resist the urge to learn new ones. This concern came up in my own writing yesterday, when I used the phrase “…authorative epithet” in describing the overuse of the word ‘expert’. I considered those words for a long time. ‘Epithet’ is definitely an uncommon word. Would I be risking my article turning off my readers if they were confronted with unusual new words?
I decided that I didn’t care. Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that. After all, I’ve written about writing to the reading age of a readership for greater clarity before. But there is a difference between writing intended to convey important information or instructions that need to be easily understood and writing intended to inspire, educate and fascinate.
Many people recommend reading with a dictionary near by, looking up new words as they appear. But barely anyone ever does it as it reduces the act of reading to a cold, clinical, code-breaking operation. What actually should happen is that the brain should determine meaning from the context of the words surrounding the newly discovered vocabulary in exactly the way that a child learns language.
What dismays me is that so few people are willing to make that little bit of effort. It’s as if a new word is a threat to their understanding or a derisory comment on their intelligence, not an opportunity to expand their language and provide greater nuances and shades of meaning.
(As an aside, I have to mention that I first came across the word ‘epithet’ in an episode of Doctor Who in 1984 when the evil Master spoke the line “A most apposite epithet”. Good to see that the writers of a TV show aimed at a family audience including children had no qualms about language, even if they did sometimes compensate too far into the florid and pretentious.)
I love that I managed to hang onto that toddler’s wonder at language. I enjoy adding to my armoury of words and stylistic techniques and I suspect that many writers are the same. What saddens me is that many others seem to have switched off that fascination beyond a certain age and that too much of the everyday content we read gives no reason for this attitude to be wrong.