Janet Sheridan: At a loss for words
In junior high, I participated in a skit designed to extol the virtues of good grooming to adolescents. The five cast members each recited a verse written by our class poet and repeatedly chanted the refrain: “If you want to be healthy, wealthy and wise, guys, clean up your act, Jack” — an exhortation indicative of both the quality of our act and its reception.
I don’t remember the gems the other verse-speakers imparted to our restless audience, but I do mine: “If you’d like to feel at home, any place, just clean your teeth, brush your hair, and wash your face.” During our performance, however, I bellowed out, “If you’d like to feel at home, any place, just wash your teeth, clean your hair and brush your face.”
I had everybody’s attention and held it, unfortunately, the rest of the day.
That’s why I’m sympathetic when candidate Al Gore assures his audience, “A zebra doesn’t change its spots” or baseball manager Wes Westrum summarizes a close game, “Well, that was a cliff-dweller.”
The average English speaker makes seven to 72 slips of the tongue each day and can’t think of the right word another two to four times, according to Michael Erard, who explores verbal gaffes in his book “Um.”
I’ve spent a lifetime validating his research. Though I made my living by speaking, favor reading as a pastime and write nearly every day, I’m embarrassed when I can’t pronounce, hear or find words.
In fourth grade, called on to read from a book called “Pesky Penelope,” I pronounced the heroine’s name the way it looked: pen-e-lope. My cousin Blake corrected me and laughed so hard he fell off his little chair. I still question his character.
In sixth grade, I minded my manners at Good Gert’s Restaurant in Salt Lake City where my class stopped after a field trip to the zoo. I sat straight, studied the menu, and with a graceful swish of my ponytail, ordered the fried chicken special. Then I disgraced myself.
When the waitress asked if I wanted soup or salad, I responded, “Yes.”
She again asked, “Soup or salad?”
I again said, “Yes,” but increased my volume.
Exasperated, she tried again: “Which one? Soup or salad? You can’t have ’em both, girlie.”
I thought she was saying super salad. They still talk about it at class reunions.
As a writer, I spend too much time trying to find the perfect word. Years ago, I read a quote from Mark Twain, which brilliantly describes my struggle: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
I hope to hurl lightening bolts at my readers, but sometimes a lightning bug is my only choice. I know I overuse the tired twins, enjoy and like, but their alternatives rarely work. Value and appreciate are too refined, and the phrase, take pleasure in, seems downright uppity. Treasure strikes me as a bit over the top, and relish makes me think of hotdogs.
I realize the dearth of synonyms for enjoy and like is not something other people fret about, but it’s a dilemma for me.
Despite my struggles with words, I continue to pursue them and to admire others who share my passion. When I discovered my grandson had a dictionary app on his phone that sent him a new word every day, I smiled; I cheered when he said, “Today’s word is irk. What a great word, I can tell my friends they irk me. That’s so cool!”
Before I could change my will in his favor, however, he abandoned words, distracted by a would-be rock band, earning gas money and girls. I hope it’s a passing phase.
Sheridan’s book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns,” is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on Tuesdays.
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