“I don’t have a present for you, but I can give you a word, that’s my gift to you,” the prefect announced to an alarmed dormitory of girls.
Her declaration, in response to being told it was one of the girls’ birthday, was met with rolling eyes, bored expressions and little enthusiasm. It didn’t take much intelligence to guess what the girls were thinking. Although they were from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, the group of about 25 eight and nine year olds shared a common opinion about the prefect’s idea of the birthday present on offer.
“What an odd gift!”
The girls were expecting something more tangible and pleasant, like sweets. After all, they were eight and nine year olds.
Lynette, the prefect on duty in the junior dorm that night, was tasked with switching off the lights after ensuring that the girls had brushed their teeth, used the toilet, said their prayers and were in bed by 7pm.
A warm and lovely prefect who was not too strict on rules, it was not surprising that one of the girls thought she could manipulate her into dishing out bedtime treats on one of their birthdays. After all, Lynette had a heart and could occasionally bend the rules a little and distribute sweeties even when the girls had brushed their teeth and were snuggly tucked in bed.
It was my birthday, and some clever little girl, who was not even my friend, had hoped to capitalize on it by making the announcement. Unfortunately, on that day Lynette did not have sweets to distribute, but still felt she could give something, however intangible, hence her offer of a word.
“The word I’m giving you is…carafe. Do you know what that is?” Obviously none of us knew, so she tried to explain further by describing it as a “decanter,” but we didn’t know the meaning of that word either! She eventually found definitions that our young minds could understand. Lynette explained that her grandmother often gave her words as gifts, then bade us goodnight, turned the lights off and left us to ponder on the new word as we drifted off to Dreamland.
We all thought she was crazy and were annoyed that we didn’t get any sweets, but eventually slept and forgot about the strange gift.
Strangely, I did not forget. About 30 years later, I still remember those two words and value them. How can I forget such a unique gift?
Although it seemed odd then, I now appreciate the value of words as gifts. Sometimes we need someone to introduce us to new words and help to broaden our vocabulary. Reading widely is one way to do that, but so is conversation.
My former editor often encouraged us to throw a few new words into stories.
“Newspapers also help your readers to learn new words,” he often said, and I agree with him.
Not all people see the value of broadening their vocabulary and learning new words, though, in whatever language.
I once worked for an organization where my boss, who was not a writer, complained and struck out words he did not know from my reports. It was a losing battle as he would not consult a dictionary. So, to get work done, I learnt to recycle the same few words that he knew and was comfortable with. One can only imagine how drab and flat our publications were as a result. Apart from producing boring publications, my vocabulary risked shrinking to the level of his.
It’s probably a cliché that there are tangible and intangible resources and that tangible resources diminish with use, while intangible ones expand the more they are used. The same applies to vocabulary as an intangible resource. You either use and expand it or you lose it.
Thankfully the cause is not lost. There are various initiatives to help people to learn new words, apart from books. These include online resources and smartphone applications that offer a word of the day or week, blogging challenges and writing prompts based on a new word. I use the dictionary app on my smartphone and subscribe to some of these resources. I must say, even though I may not use all the words in this lifetime, I enjoy learning something new and adding another arrow to the quiver of my vocabulary, in case I need it in future.
I wonder what would happen though, if we started a “word revolution” and decided to learn and share a new word a day within our circles everyday. Or, if we took it upon ourselves to gift our children with words daily the way Lynette’s grandmother did.
I imagine that conversations would be more interesting to begin with, people would also have a wider selection of words to choose from when expressing themselves and I am sure chances of being misunderstood would also be reduced. I am sure we would also communicate more clearly.
Have you ever conversed with someone who uses words like “thing, thingie, thingimabob, nini, whatyoumacall it” and expects you to understand what they mean? Some even turn to profanity, which I strongly believe is an indication of a limited vocabulary. I’m inclined to believe a word revolution would help such people to be more articulate.
Consequently, messages would be less garbled and there would be minimum confusion. We would probably have less of those peculiar moments when the most appropriate word eludes us. Most likely we’ve all had those times when we know that there is a better word, yet somehow it disappears into the crevices of our minds when we need it most and resurfaces when it’s no longer relevant, like immediately after an examination or a crucial presentation at work.
Also, if inappropriate words can spark a war, surely appropriate ones can usher peace.
Just my imagination at work, but I firmly believe there is joy in giving and receiving. If we can give love, money and material objects, why can’t we give words as gifts? After all, they are free of charge but can empower people, enhance a personal growth and transform lives. Imagine how many people have failed an examination, lost out on a job, messed up on a promising date or missed an opportunity simply because they were not equipped with the right words to express themselves?
On the flipside, imagine those who gained and were at an advantage because they uttered one word that distinguished them from everyone else. The right words can either put or remove someone from power, after all, leaders are elected on the strength of their words during campaigns.
Think for a moment- if knowledge is power, how else can that power be expressed except through words?
So, let’s start a word revolution, gift people with words and learn from them. Words are gifts, let’s maximize their potential for the benefit of humanity.