Around the Island

Jenifer’s Journal: The magic words

Words create worlds. — Pierre du Plessis

I love magic words: “Open Sesame;” “abracadabra;” “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…;” “bibity-bobity-boo;” “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy;” and, of course, the magic word, ”Please.”

In first grade, the word I loved learning to write the most was “Halloween” — definitely a magic word — but it soon became clear that all words are made magic depending on how you put them together. And that “putting them together?” That’s what they call “language,” which is big, powerful magic, indeed.

How else to explain how a rectangular pile of paper with tiny black marks on it could possibly fill the empty hours of those summer afternoons of my childhood, way out there in the hinterlands of Silver Beach, creating worlds of high adventure, mystery and romance.

My friend Suzanne and I lived for those weekly trips to the Shelter Island Library with its cool, subdued light and creaky wooden floors (in the 1950s it was in a tiny old building on School Street) where they’d let me take out two books, which, if I was lucky, would last me for seven days. Back then I had a voracious appetite for two things: books and Dugan’s cupcakes but, happily, the Dugan’s man came twice a week.

My appetite for the words themselves grew; how they sounded — lilac, lavender, glisten, glimmer — so beautiful — and those crazy onomatopoeias like hiss, buzz and sizzle. And what they meant. Some had five or six meanings! And where they were from, and even how it felt to write them, to see them on the page, especially once I learned “cursive,” sadly gone the way of the Dodo now.

Words were fun. There were word games such as Scrabble, Dictionary, Hang-man, as well as the silly jokes and riddles like Knock-Knock and otherwise, based on those playful, pesky “homophones” as I later learned. To this day, I’ve never met a pun I didn’t like.

But I also learned, as we all do, that words can be hurtful and dangerous, depending on the intent behind them. That old “Sticks and stones may break my bones” response to schoolyard name-calling was more an incantation than a retort, at least for me, magic words that would somehow guard against feeling the pain of those mean ones.

Except the magic didn’t work. In fact, the harder I tried to ignore them, the deeper they cut. Even after 60-something years, those scars haven’t completed disappeared. There are no magic words for that.

In high school my peers and I were introduced to the Thesaurus and immediately began to suffer the wages of V.D.D. (Verbal Delicatessen Disease), the primary symptom of which being a flagrantly sophomoric preference for those big, fancy-sounding words over their modest, often more precise synonyms.

Mercifully, by college I’d been humbled enough to realize that one develops a wide vocabulary in service of clarity, precision and truth, not in order to rack up syllables. However I came by them, though, collecting an ever-expanding stockpile of words with all their shades of meaning was akin to when I was 7, receiving my first “100s box” of Crayola crayons. The options seem endless, but, as with crayons, word choices must be made. As Emily Dickinson said: “…and they must be the best words.”

After a checkered college career in the 1960s, I went back to school, got my English 7-12 teaching certification, and then my first full-time teaching job in the mid-1990s. It was thrilling. I immediately set about trying to teach my kids the many ways they could take ownership of their magnificent, magical, but often unruly language. However, it seems while I was trying to demonstrate its richness, its nuance, its variety, technology was working at cross purposes.

Yes, words are added to and deleted from dictionaries every year; language is a living entity, after all, and I can live without “frigorific,” “younker,” but why have words such as “bluebell,” “buttercup,” “heather” and “mistletoe” been removed? To make way for “Reaction GIF,” “Digital Blackface,” “TL;DR”? That last means “Too long; didn’t read.” Seriously. And the words we do have? Clearly technology encourages us to slice, dice and abbreviate the rest of them into non-existence: lol, idk, fyi, lmk, imo, omg, lmao, wtf, etc.

Words are so easily and often misused, abused, and trivialized — tiny slaves to ignorance and bad motives — it’s obvious that we have very little respect, let alone reverence, for the signature “technology” of our species.

Maybe the greatest weakness of language is its power. Look at the incalculable damage wrought when we use it for destructive, deceitful ends. If “words create worlds,” but we refuse to take responsibility for the words we say, write, read and listen to, just what kind of worlds are we creating? We might need more than magic now. We just might need a miracle.