Secret Pop

Jun 4, 2004

Find it where it is.

The word of the day on 2 June was autochthonous. The following day, David Tidmarsh correctly spelled the same word to win the National Spelling Bee. And he totally knew it when they read it to him. In the same way that he clearly knew gaminerie before it. He was near to hyperventilating as he spelled it. I don't know if that's officially uncanny. But it's a good way of learning the word autochthonous. And you never know when that might come in handy. I already knew how to spell it, but -- as with a secret many things -- I might have been hard-pressed to tell you what it meant unless you presented it to me in context. And a sentence like, "Fred was autochthonous," wouldn't have been enough.

My sister and I were talking about this the other day. The fact of her former spelling champion-ness (yes, both of us; can you believe it?) came up in conversation with a client (if I remember the anecdote correctly), and he challenged her to define the word lugubrious. And she said that she could SPELL it. Who cares what it means. Lugubrious, as it happens, means mournful or sad. By rights, it should be a favored word in my lexicon.

This same thing happens to me from time to time. It's the curse of being labeled a smart pair of pants. Everyone wants to unseat you. And I swear that any pun quotient in that sentence is not only unintentional, but you are forbidden to infer it. I was called "Brain" a lot in school. And for some reason that is both a term of esteem and loathing. They admire your smarts, but they also hate you for them. And nothing gives them more pleasure than to catch you out. Like the time my fourth grade math teacher made me cry by getting the entire class to chant taunting remarks at me when I missed one on a test -- FOR THE FIRST TIME THAT ENTIRE SCHOOL YEAR. It was Mr. Atcheson (fondly called "Mr. A"), and he and the entire class sarcastically asked and answered the same sentence over and over and over again until I ran crying from the room. "Mary missed one? Mary missed one! Mary missed one? Mary missed one!" I ran past the open door of my sister's reading class, and Jason Loomis, the cute boy that everyone liked who always carried a Goody comb in his pocket to tend to his feathered hair, leaned over to my sister and whispered, "I think your sister just got her period." And my sister, never one to disappoint, later told me that her greatest concern was not that I was in a state of duress, but rather that I might have gotten my period before she did.

Later that week, when Mr. A was the teacher on duty at lunch recess, he saw that I was red in the face from a game of whatever I had been playing at (probably tetherball or handball), and he placed a hand on my forehead, thought I was feverish, and had the nurse send me home. It was clearly a guilty peace offering. And, while I enjoyed helping my mom fold laundry in front of the Richard Simmons show instead of whatever we would have been doing in social studies that afternoon, I neither forgave nor forgot that incident. If you're reading this Mr. Atcheson, shame on you.

Some of the games we play at the comedy theater require us to get difficult words from the audience, and I am often put on the spot when someone suggests a word like defenestrate or stochastic, and my teammates turn to me, knowing that I will be able to tell them what it means. I ALWAYS feel that sense of panic: "What if I don't actually know what the word means? What if I've been faking it all this time?" Don't worry. I know what defenestrate and stochastic mean. Never you fear. But there are plenty of words I know how to spell and only know how to spell. And having that made public in front of an audience is never a pleasant thought.

When you play the role of the smartypants, you have to fake it a lot. It's a terrible habit. I, in my growing up, have tried to break free of it. I have tried to say, "I don't know what you mean," when I don't know what someone means. I try to say, "What is that word?" when I don't know what a word is. I try to be okay with not knowing everything. Because I have a feeling that leaving the desire to always know everything unchecked eventually evolves into other roles such as the agoraphobic, the sniper, and the cat lady.

And believe me, it's a far sight better actually learning things from people than trying to learn it all behind their backs while no one's looking. If you have something to teach me, I welcome it. Maybe not so much when I was a sophomore in high school. But I've done a lot of growing up since then. And there is actual truth to the notion that it takes more courage to admit that you're wrong or that you don't know than it takes to lord your rightness over everyone. I wasn't going to bring up anything George W. Bush-related today, but there you have it. Why won't he ever admit he's wrong? No one even thinks he's a smartypants? What has he got to lose?

I was really just going to point out that autochthonous was the word of the day only the day before it was the word of the hour. But, as has been known to happen, I digressed. Don't get me going about me and my pants.

P.S. Autochthonous means originating in the place where found. Just in case that wasn't clear.

No comments: