Boy, Where’d You Learn a Word Like That?

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.

1. Feces

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.

2. Subpoena

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?”

“Uh… yes?”

“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”.

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About kirkstarr

I draw pictures for a living.
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8 Responses to Boy, Where’d You Learn a Word Like That?

  1. Elyse says:

    ha ha this is a great post. 🙂

  2. K. says:

    I honestly have the worst vocabulary. And I have an MA in English. It's pathetic. Also, I cannot spell. Yay!

  3. Jay says:

    Nice. I tend to like words myself, and woe to the person to whom I may ask to look up a definition for me, because I also want to know the word origins and complete etymology.This reminds me of something I'd said too in sixth grade…..the teacher had asked some question, something along the lines of "why do people know all the things they know today" or something….and I piped up with my answer: "it's the mafia!" Only I'd meant "the media", but I didn't know which word was the right one to use and took a chance on that one. The look on his face told me I'd chosen poorly.Especially since "the mafia" was very much alive and well where I grew up. I can only wonder what he thought of me afterwards.

  4. lizzy says:

    lol i would collect words like that too when i was a kid. and then i would test them out by using them in sentences until i got it right. we had a neighbor who was very amused by this.

  5. SweetMisery says:

    feces: I don't remember the exact situation, but I remember asking my mother what it was. Shit she says. I was horrified. lol

  6. "media" is getting alot more like the "mafia" by the minute. You were smarter than you realised, ahead of your time, really : )

  7. Great post. When I was teaching, teenage boys would look up words like, "fellatio" etc and then ask the youngest of their teachers what the words meant, just to see who would stumble and stutter. It was pretty clever and funny , if you knew it was coming and had a good comeback.

  8. Carlisa says:

    You sound just like Tony (my 9 y/o) He keeps everyone in stitches over some of the things he says. A couple years ago his teacher asked him to behave in line…"Stop touching the walls! Do you do that at home?!" Tony said "My home is the MOTHER OF ALL MESSES"…(He got that off "The Cat in the Hat" movie.) Thank God his teacher was familiar with his personality. I almost died when she told me that! omggggggggggggg!

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