Essay: An Unfamiliar Word

Feb 5, 2016

As Lake Effect essayist Christianna Fritz learned at a young age, sometimes adults have a strange reaction to an otherwise perfectly innocent word:

I remember the first time I felt embarrassed after asking for the definition of a word. My class (eight to ten children) was having what our substitute teacher called “quiet time.” Quiet time to me, meant reading, so I grabbed books from our classroom library. One book had fashions from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and each page had something more ridiculous than the last. Hoop skirts, bows, wigs…and bracelets on a woman’s legs? I leaned in, reading the labels. But what was the point of wearing something like that? A little bit nervous, but curious, I approach my teacher’s desk, where the substitute sits with her back perfectly straight, a way I only sat after being yelled at for slouching. For some reason, I raise my hand although I’m standing right in front of her.

“Yes…?” One eyebrow is raised.

“Missus. I have a question.”

She crosses her arms.

“Yes…?”

“What are garters?”

Silence. A silence longer than other silences.

“Where did you hear that word?”

“I saw it in a book. Do you wear garters? I’ve never seen anyone wear them before.”

She sighed, a dragged-down heavy sigh.

“No. It’s an undergarment. Bring me the book.”

Her eyes searched me over as if I’d taken something from the desk and stashed it in my pocket. She took the book from me and folded her hands on top of it. “Take a seat.” Bookless and red faced, I returned to my desk, ashamed I’d asked.

I still feel shame because of that memory. But, not ashamed I asked an unpleasant woman if she wore garters, but because I wouldn’t dare do it now. Walk up to someone and ask them what a word means. I google it on my phone or nod as if I understand. As adults, we’re embarrassed to not know, we’d rather pretend at knowing. We’d rather use the impressive word in a safe context and maybe look it up later.

When I tutored adults learning English as a second language, it surprised me how difficult it could be to explain a word I had been familiar with my entire life. A student once asked, “What is a cow?” My eloquent answer was, “Umm…a black and white animal that produces milk?”

And then we get to the difficult questions: What is time? What is beauty? What is music? When someone from another country, another frame of reference, asked for a definition, I couldn’t backpedal and rely on familiarity with the United States, idioms, or common phrases. I had to start fresh, find the root of what a word actually means. It made me realize how many words were in my vocabulary that I couldn’t adequately explain. This makes me wonder, what would we learn if we started asking about meaning, instead of using language out of habit? Not to test anyone, but to admit we don’t know, and would like to know.

Christianna Fritz is a transplanted Milwaukeean.  She’s now a children's bookseller and over-caffeinated writer living in Minnesota.