A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
If you’re a regular reader of my column, you know by now that I’m the sort of person who constantly annoys people around him by correcting their spelling or grammar. I can’t quite explain why words captivate me so much, but I can’t escape them. My sporadic attempts at meditation war constantly with the ceaseless burble of words in my head. I spent New Years day and a couple after it playing game after game of scrabble with my sister. With five years age difference between us, she used to trounce me every game we played when we were kids, but now I give as well as I get. Clearly, we both developed the habit as kids.
I love language, wordplay, reading, puns, etymology, writing, crossword puzzles, and the sound of my own voice. I hope to share all of these interests (well, okay, maybe not the last one so much) with my sons, and turn them into linguaphiles like me. I want them to live in houses choked with much loved books, and to whip butt at scrabble.
The first steps on this road are already trodden. Janice and I have read to the boys since their birth, currently taking turns with each boy on alternating nights, and once the boys are abed I often read aloud to my wife, too. Both boys began to read statistically early, and an oft-told anecdote reminds us that Keefe first learned the word "articulate" at age two. But it’s harder than ever to hook your kids on books these days. Television has so much more wow factor than it did in my childhood, and of course at my mom’s house back then we only got one channel and that one badly. My father was fascinated with technology, and I still remember my Atari 2600, the first home video game system with a keyboard, and which could store data on audiocassettes with an external drive, but it pales utterly before Keefe’s mighty PS2, itself soon to be rendered obsolete. Most achingly frustrating in the equation is Keefe’s mild form of disgraphia, which renders the challenge of translating busy thoughts into words on paper doubly confounding for him. So both boys are hooked on audiobooks, preferably the kind that include a real human being in the room with you, but it’s sometimes tough getting Keefe to pick up a book of his own. Comics are the perennial exception, but despite the maturing of the comic medium in the last couple of decades, that still means mainly a regular diet of biff, pow, and tough guy dialogue, while I wistfully shoot for something more rounded... like Shakespeare, maybe.
I read the complete works of Shakespeare in grade four, myself, which if anything ought to give you some idea how often I got beat up in grade school, and high school English for me included one of the bard’s plays every year. You could tell the truly exemplary teachers because they brought this famous old dead guy to life rather than monotonously sapping any possible joy out of several class weeks. I still appreciate the plays and sonnets, but I know the real contribution old Bill made to the English language is a lot more fundamental. Shakespeare invented about 1700 words still in common use today; words like excellent, critical, obscene, radiant, countless, brittle, aggravate, frugal, and majestic. Without him, Bill and Ted’s adventure could only have been, um, adequate, and Keanu Reeves' career would never have taken off. Oops. Now I’m in a pickle. Have I in one fell swoop damned myself to some special circle of hell for linking William Shakespeare and Keanu Reeves in the same paragraph? Actually, ‘one fell swoop’ and ‘in a pickle’ are still more Shakespeareisms, like ‘vanish into thin air’, ‘in my mind’s eye’ or ‘play fast and loose.’ He probably gave us the first usage of ‘wooden performance’, too, but don’t quote me on that. I guess the point here is that even if the man was a genius and I was a freak for reading him young, the simple fact that Keefe knows his name and some of his plays is a crowning literacy achievement, putting him far ahead of plenty of high-schoolers around us. When Jan started making herself a puppet of William Shakespeare in her high school drama class, one of the students told her “No, miss, pick somebody famous.”
Heck, as long as the boys know ‘you’ has more than one letter and that
ROTFLMAO isn’t a proper sentence, they are giants in the field. Word
games, pun-ny dialogue, and rhyming are a regular part of life in our
household, and it’s not just because I want them to pick up another of
dad’s eccentricities, like talking to myself. Words are power.
Knowing the right name for something, being able to articulate a
feeling, or framing a convincing argument can save your life. It can
win you a mate, gain you a job, or smooth talk you out of trouble.
Almost any significant thing the boys achieve in this life will be
through words. Sure, either boy might be a sculptor or a linebacker or
a scientist, and manifest great success through other means, but like
me, they’re never going to be able to shut up. They’ll be
they’ll be heard, they’ll be happy.
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