Archive for September, 2013

Filling the Holes



Ruth Minshull

A few years ago I was working an acrostic puzzle when I was stumped.  Only after I had filled in all the surrounding words did I discover that the one I needed was “piñata.”  “Well, who on earth would know that?” I asked of the world at large.

“I do,” my friend Ed said.

“I do,” my older son said.

“I do,” my younger son said.

I was stupefied.  How could I have lived all those years without encountering the word?  How could everyone else around me know the word when I didn’t?

This wasn’t the first time I discovered a word that was totally new to me.  Even more often I had found that a word had a different meaning than I thought it did.

A friend of mine, a college professor (of linguistics), used the word “debacle” to describe the serious situation a mutual friend was in.  I pondered that for a time.  To me, “debacle” meant a fiasco.  The word seemed far too lightweight to use about a person who was facing prosecution and prison (as was our friend).  When I had a chance to look it up, I found that the primary meaning was downfall or disaster.  Fiasco was a secondary meaning.

Amazing.  Another word I hadn’t fully understood.

I had another learning experience with the word “enormity” which I thought always referred to size.  It turns out that old man Webster considers size as a poor second use of the word.  The primary meaning is “great wickedness.”

Once again I was astonished to find that I didn’t know.

Many times in my life I have discovered these strange holes in my knowledge.  They’re missing files in my data bank.

The most befuddling aspect is that I not only didn’t know, but I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

I understand very little about the field of astronomy, so it would be no surprise to me if I encountered a whole passel of unknown words in that field.  This would never bother me.  I wouldn’t expect anything else.

But to find that there’s some common word that I don’t even have a nodding acquaintance with (which practically everyone else seems to know on a first name basis) —now that leaves me aghast, astounded, taken aback, confounded and discombobulated.

How could this happen?  This gaping hole?  It wouldn’t be so hard on me if I had merely learned that I didn’t know something, but when it is common knowledge to practically everyone else—that’s when it spins me for a loop.

Did I miss school the day that word was introduced?  Was that page missing from my dictionary?

The only consolation is that it happens to others.  A friend of mine knows practically everything.  He’s a walking encyclopedia who soaks up facts like a giant vacuum.  He’s our go-to guy for any information on any subject.  The other day he discovered that he had never known that “dairy” and “diary” were spelled differently.  He was mortified and chagrined.  He couldn’t believe that this fact had successfully eluded him all of his life.  It was obviously humbling to one so knowledgeable.

He and I are not the only ones, however.  I hear people giving speeches and interviews who mispronounce words or select the wrong word.  It’s no longer much of a surprise to me.

English is a complex language.  We spend out entire lives trying to learn it.  Even then we all encounter the occasional hole, one that appears to be filled.  But it’s waiting there—a sneaky trap—ready for us to fall into and emerge with our egos battered and bruised.

Humbled once again.

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