“What’s your favorite word?” Kim asked me that the other day. It’s the kind of thing Kim asks from time to time.
I thought for a second or two and said “if.” And then, “What’s yours?”
I love Kim’s word, largely because it’s how, most days, Kim manages to live her life. My favorite definition of serendipity is “Looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter.” But more than that, I believe that serendipity is something you bring to a situation, a way of seeing rather than what you find there. Kim can discover a cobweb worth photographing, or perhaps using when constructing a bird’s nest.
“If” is one of my favorites because of the way it pivots the mind and spirit in a new direction. I suppose I thought of it because I recently read the Kipling poem that begins:
“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . ..” But Kipling is presenting an if/then argument, concluding with “you’ll be a Man, my son!” (Note capitalization of “Man” and the explanation point.) My “if” is more open-ended – an invitation to imagine alternatives, to speculate, to get un-stuck. This is not to say that I get unstuck very often or readily. Kim has occasionally pointed out that I am fond of my routines, sometimes to the point of near-blindness (“near”?). But I still like the word. Maybe it’s need-based affection.
Kim’s question led me to speculate on other favorite words.
I remember as a camper in northern Vermont that our counselor, Jack Heath, would take us on four-day canoe trips on Lake Champlain. Jack, who taught English at Exeter, would take his “cough medicine” with him on the trip, and one night around the campfire his cough must have been especially troublesome. Soon he was explaining to us how perfect the curse words “shit” and “fuck” are because of the way you can lengthen the opening consonant sounds and then end the exclamations sharply with the “t” or “k.” This may have been the moment in my life, at age 15, that I knew I wanted to be an English teacher like Jack. I don’t use these words very often, saving them for special occasions when struggling with computer issues, but my appreciation is deep – thank you, Jack.
Another favorite word: “ceberration.” You may agree with my spell-check that this is not a word, but read on. Kim and I, along with our friend Sue, attended a week-long session at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. One evening we went to a poetry reading, held in a living room with a bunch of chairs brought in. The poet was a local woman, very dignified in that southern lady way, and her poems were good in a very traditional way. Many of them involved celebrations of this or that, usually observations of nature, but she pronounced the word as “ceberration.” The first time she said it, Kim and I exchanged puzzled glances. The second time, we saw the puzzled look in Sue’s face. The third time, we were grinning. The fourth time we had to stifle our laughter and could not look at each other. We had to leave the room before the reading ended so we wouldn’t further embarrass ourselves. But to this day, 30 years later, Kim and I still announce a “ceberration” to mark an achievement – planting a tree, photographing a new bird, seeing moonlight on the water, a good medical report. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank that poet. See how poetry can enrich our lives?
Any favorite words you'd like to share?
From Kate Lindenmuth:
I so enjoyed this! I have so many favorite words, but two that came to mind just now are "beguiled" and "ensconced". I love beguiled because I love that enchanting feeling when I see something that my mind believes is too magical to be real, but it's clearly real. I love the word ensconced because it conjures up an image of being completely comfortable and even loved exquisitely. And Kim, one of my all time favorite words is serendipity! Dave, I used "if" on my kids when they were growing up so much that they probably thought it was my favorite word: "You can watch Speed Racer IF you let your sister snuggle with you on the couch." "I will make peanut butter cookies IF you tidy up the 'city of tents' in the living room."