Words Words Words

My mother told me that until I was two-and-a-half, I barely spoke. She said this was because my two older sisters, close to me in age, would intuit what I wanted and speak for me. My mother further informed me that when I finally began to speak, I did so in paragraphs.

In school, from First Grade through Twelfth, I was forever speaking when I wasn’t supposed to be speaking, much to chagrin of my teachers. I understood intellectually why I wasn’t to speak unless given permission, but I found such a dynamic emotionally abusive, so I rebelled and suffered the consequences, which were not usually dire, but frequently annoying.

I remember learning the word obese when I was eight. The moment I learned the word, I encountered obese everywhere, as if the word had been waiting for me to know its meaning before manifesting in the rest of my reality.

In Tenth Grade, I seriously overused the word naïve, having been called naïve by a young woman who was briefly my girlfriend. “You are so naïve,” was the denouement of her breaking-up-with-me speech, as if that particular word explained everything wrong with me as a boyfriend. And so, while recovering from the breakup, at every opportunity I would respond to things my friends said with a sarcastic, “How can you be so naïve?”

However, I did not know how to spell naïve, and one day during my senior year of high school in Advanced English – oh God the embarrassment – we were taking turns reading aloud from some famous work we were supposed to admire, and when it came my turn to read, I encountered the word naïve and pronounced it knave, which inspired great mirth and guffawing among my classmates.

And my teacher, who had long endured my aforementioned habit of speaking without first gaining his permission, declared with vindictive delight, “The word, Mr. Walton, is pronounced nigh-eve, not knave as you have so grievously mispronounced it.”

To which I, red-faced, replied, “Oh how could I have been so knave?”

Which rejoinder brought the house down and killed my teacher’s momentary joy.

When I was in my forties and living in Berkeley, I was listening to a cassette recording of the Monty Python sketch The Cheese Shop, in which one of the characters enters a cheese shop and explains to the proprietor, “I was passing by and suddenly felt esurient.”

The proprietor replies, “Say what?”

And the first character repeats, “Esurient. You know. Peckish.”

So I looked up esurient, found that it means hungry, and thereafter used the word zealously, which informed me that almost no one I knew had the slightest idea what esurient meant.

Not long after learning the new word, I went to San Francisco to have lunch with a friend who was vain of his vast vocabulary and loved displaying his familiarity with Latin. When it was time to leave his flat and go to lunch, I said, “None to soon, for I am profoundly esurient.”

He frowned and said, “Say what?”

With a British accent I replied, “Esurient. Surely you know this word.”

His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Something you made up?”

“Nay,” said I. “Esurience is hunger. When one is hungry, one is esurient.”

He rushed to his OED, looked up the word, and for years thereafter used esurient at every opportunity.


Ceremony of the Child a piano song by Todd