Friday, March 5, 2010

Definitions Do Matter

I've been participating, fitfully, in Words Matter Week, sponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.

Today's blog challenge:

What person in your life helped you understand the importance of choosing words carefully? What would you say to them if you met them today?

My dad was a self-taught man, barely graduating from Boys High School in Brooklyn before he started work, first in a doll factory and then as a traveling salesman.

Dad was a smart cookie, however, and despite his lack of formal education he pursued a number of intellectual hobbies to the point of obsession. One was classical music and opera. The other was words.

He never met a multi-syllabic descriptor he didn't love. If there was anything he enjoyed more than learning a new word, it was using that word to one-up someone else's pedantic verbiage.

He was notoriously picky about gifts, returning nearly everything I ever gave him, but the one hit I had was the big-ass dictionary (with its own stand!) I presented one holiday season. Its thin, crinkly onion-skin pages soon became wrinkled, stained and dog-eared as Dad consulted it frequently and, I'm convinced, turned to it occasionally for light reading.

Mostly, Dad's word thing was amusing or annoying. But there were times it turned dangerous; never more so than during one long weekend we spent with my uncle and aunt in Napa. Aunt Ruth was an uber-stylish, 50-something decorator with a sharp tongue and an opinion on everything. Uncle Dan was my dad's kid brother, the one who had gotten an education (a PhD in psychology) and made the family proud. Dan must've been in his 40s at that time, and he absolutely worshiped Ruth, who had been his more-sophisticated, married next-door neighbor a few years earlier (a whole 'nother story).

One morning we were all gathered around the breakfast table when Ruth launched into one of her colorful stories, this one about how she'd walked into a client's house with several cans of paint, tripped over a step and landed sprawled out in several gallons of oozing paint. "I was so embarrassed!" Ruth exclaimed.

"You were chagrined," Dad suggested, with that "I'm teaching everyone a new word" look on his face.

Ruth paused, pressing a red-tapered fingernail to her lips, and looked skyward. "Nooooo," she said slowly, "I was embarrassed, but I wasn't really chagrined." She smiled and took another drag on her cigarette.

The game was on. Chagrined, Dad insisted. Embarrassed, Ruth corrected. Multiple dictionaries were dragged out; definitions were parsed, probed and compared. Alternate words were proposed, dissected and rejected. Spouses and children weighed in with their opinions, each of us supporting one side or the other.

Despite several entreaties to "just change the subject," neither one of these gladiators would let go. As skirmishes flared, tempers followed suit. My dad did not like being contradicted. Well, what do you know? Neither did Ruth. And it was her paint-splashed accident, and her feelings, in question - as she icily pointed out.

Mom and Uncle Dan, the mild-mannered counterparts of these mules, tried in vain to calm things down. I don't know how long the argument progressed - it felt like hours - but sometime before lunch Dad announced that we were leaving. "Kids, get the suitcases in the car!" he shouted. We scurried about until, luggage loaded, embarrassed (dare I say chagrined?) goodbyes whispered, we took our leave.

It may be my imagination, but I remember our Ford station wagon burning rubber with an angry shriek as Dad gunned it down their driveway.

The relationships were eventually patched up, but none of us still alive to this day can hear the word "chagrin" without an involuntary shudder.

Dad was a difficult man, and much of our relationship was conflicted. He died just as I matured into adulthood and started to appreciate him. One of my biggest regrets is that my sons never got to meet him. If he were alive today, I'd tell him how surprised I am that I turned out so much like him. And I'd tell him that he was right about chagrin.


  1. Just wonderful, Karen. Thank you.

  2. Hon, this was superb, fabulous, witty and well written. Any more adjectives, I can't find right now.

  3. I'm chagrined to say that I don't know the difference between the two, but I remember your Dad well and distinctly recall his zest for a good argument. BTW, did he ever admit defeat?

  4. Great story. Beautifully written. Your dad would be proud.

  5. Our father was a true sesquipedalian (his word)!

  6. And you'd tell him that without embarrassment. Loved this!

  7. Thanks for the feedback everybody! I appreciate it.

    Jim: Admit defeat? Not a chance. By the way, your mom was present at the chagrin debacle and anytime that word would come up in later years, she'd give my hand a little squeeze. ;-)

    David: Yes, he certainly was!

  8. What a great memory-- thank you for sharing it. Words pack a lot of power!

  9. I loved this story. You really painted a vibrant picture of your aunt and dad.

    Now, excuse me. I have to go look up chagrin and embarrass.

  10. Such a great word for the debate, too. I loved reading this - much more in it than two hardheads with conflicting definitions.