Have I ever told you my melancholy story? It’s quite likely I have, given that I’ve had 25 years to tell it, but it crossed my mind and I really want to roll it out... maybe again.
It goes back to when my daughter was a wee thing, she had an inexplicable bout of tears; unusual for her. Perplexed, as there was no evidence of anything untoward, I asked why she was crying.
“I am melancholy,” she wailed back piteously, without missing a beat. It took some time for me to assimilate this mournful response, trying not to burst out laughing. I had to smother the urge, as I knew she was waiting for some comforting gesture. I still can’t remember what triggered the outburst, but I’ve never forgotten the woebegone “I am melancholy” from my three-year-old.
The memory was prompted by a conversation we were having a few days ago about language, vocabulary and code-switching. She was telling me that when she was growing up she was often mindful of her choice of words, trying to keep them simple enough so that people could grasp what she was saying. From early, her lexicon was wide, and she used her words so freely that it earned her the nickname Miss Proper from my relatives.
I’ve never been adept at filtering my language; yet I know there is an unconscious mechanism that helps us to switch registers to suit a particular environment. I was unable to do the baby-talk business. I just couldn’t, but I used to chat with her all the time; all the time, now that I think about it. Even before she could speak, I would be nattering away, observing how intently she was listening; so intently that sometimes I would pause and say, ‘I can’t wait for you to be able to tell me what you’re thinking.’ Oh boy, when that time came, I was overwhelmed by the torrents that never seemed to let up! I suppose we were a loquacious pair.
I had always spoken in my natural manner with her because I was confident she would ask me to explain the meaning of anything unfamiliar. I might have been a bit extreme, but I genuinely could not do the goo-goo ga-ga thing. It never occurred to me to talk down to the child who had looked at me so piercingly at birth that I’d felt moved to greet her formally.
“Hello Amy, it’s so nice to finally meet you.”
Up to that point, we had not yet settled on which of the two finalists would become her name. Somehow, when I looked at her, it felt like she had already chosen it. I know this sounds soppy, but it was as if she had arrived with a high level of consciousness. My great-grandmother had been adamant that I was an “old soul” on account of my childhood precociousness; maybe I was projecting that onto my newborn.
Perhaps my approach turned her into a bookworm more than any innate proclivity. Who’s to say? She was teasing me about how I persisted in giving books as presents to my nieces and nephews, despite their crestfallen looks when they unwrapped them. “And the books kept coming,” she chortled at me last week. It’s true. I was not the Aunt of Excitement. My siblings were the ones who provided the fun toys and games. I thought I was bringing some balance to the mix. I suppose every clan has one like me.
Amy was surrounded by books, both at her father’s house and mine. It wasn’t just their physical presence. They were cheerful, adventurous, mysterious, alluring housemates in both her homes. Her relationship with words, with books, with language, with literature and with her imagination was nurtured by an environment that taught her to appreciate, not shun them as tedious aspects of life.
We talked often about words (that sounds much worse than it was), and one of the repeated conversations was about striving for precision—and that sounds even worse! I used to tell her that you could easily find a dozen words with similar meanings in the English language. (Pick any word and look for its synonyms.) But if you are trying to describe something as accurately as you can, only one or two might precisely capture the nuance of your specific situation. If all of this sounds a bit much, remember that I live in the world of words.
Some words—like nice and awesome and fine—are so overworked that they have lost their meaning. Any parent will tell you the standard response to the question, “How was school today?” is “good”.
I’d ask. She’d say “gu-uhd”. We’d laugh, and I’d be none the wiser about the quality of her day.
People have a way of throwing words at each other carelessly. They could spend many minutes tossing sentences back and forth and come away without having gleaned anything. Things are fine, and good, interesting and great, and so on. I am so hopelessly inept at small talk that if I ask about something, it is because I am genuinely interested—not because I am trying to be polite. No wonder I don’t get invited out much.
I just feel that if we choose our words more carefully, conversations can be so much more enriching and communication would be clearer.
—The author is an editor,
writer and cricket historian.