Many of you know that although I make my living as a graphic designer, my degree is in English. When the money wasn’t forthcoming for a good art school (see my profile for the details on that) and I had to pick a different major, I chose English because I have always been in love with language. As far back as I can remember, I have sort of “collected” words. While other kids found enjoyment in their stamp, coin, and beer bottle collections, I got all excited over a new three-dollar word or a clever turn of a phrase. A 10-cent Washington Z-Grill couldn’t hold a candle to learning a word like “exsanguinate" or “infinitesimal” or “hubris”.
As result, I tend to remember exactly when and how I came to learn certain words. I thought it might be entertaining to share a couple of these with you.
I learned this delightful word from a newspaper clipping when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. The story was about a prison inmate who had, in protest over something I cannot recall but which was probably really stupid, smeared his own feces all over himself. There was a grainy photo accompanying the story and I remember the guy sitting there with a big ol’ – pardon the expression – shit-eating grin on his face. The caption read something along the lines of: In protest over blah-blah, King County Prison inmate so-and-so covered himself in his own feces. I think I was as excited about learning the word “feces” as I was about having a newspaper photo of a guy with excrement all over him.
The story behind this one reveals that while I was obviously not averse to learning, I didn’t particularly like going to school. It also shows how cartoons can actually be pretty educational.
One fine fall morning – again sometime around fourth or fifth grade – I decided I’d just head into school a little late. I figured I’d tell mom I’d lost track of time, sorry about that, won’t happen again. No problem. So, I flopped down in front of the boob-tube and turned on some Looney Tunes. In one cartoon, a short, stogy-puffing caricature of a man was talking in an Italian accent (I believe he was supposed to be a mobster) and mentioned something about trying to avoid a subpoena. Only he pronounced it “suh-pee-nee” the way I guess vaguely racist 70s depictions of Italians are prone to do from time to time.
Of course, I had no idea what a suhpeenee was. But I was sharp enough to know that it was probably integral to the plot of the cartoon and that I’d probably have appreciated the story more if I knew what that one word meant.
I tried to look up the word to no avail. The cartoon man’s pronunciation blew that possibility, but even if he’d pronounced it correctly, I doubt I’d have found a word with such an utterly non-intuitive spelling.
So the big problem was that since I hadn’t the slightest clue what the word meant and since the story dealt with elements not in my everyday life (mobsters, machine guns, extortion, anthropomorphic animals) I wasn’t sure how to couch the question to my mother. Surely she’d want to know where I’d heard it and then what would I say? Couldn’t say I heard it at school because she’d be curious as to why I didn’t ask the teacher. Couldn’t tell her my older brother R had said it because, well, I pretty much hated him at the time and in my pre-pubescent insolence, considered him far dumber than myself. Eventually, though, my curiosity got the better of me and while I was chatting with mom as she made dinner that night, I just threw it out there.
“Mom, what does “suhpeenee” mean?
“That’s not a word, Kirk. Do you mean subpoena?”
“Well, a subpoena is a document presented to you when you are required to appear in court.”
“So, it’s like getting a ticket.”
“No, not really, because it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It often is, but not always. It’s just a legal paper that tells you to appear in court on a certain date and details the reason for the request. You could be subpoenaed just to be a witness, for example.”
And with that, she turned back to flipping pieces of chicken over in the frying pan and I strolled off, convinced that my truancy was justified because I’d probably learned more in that hour watching cartoons than I would have in the Seattle Public School District. After all, none of my teachers had ever used the word “subpoena”.