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Tuesday, 12 April 2011


By Lyn Burnstine


I think I’ve always had a love affair with words. With a smart older sister and parents who spoke carefully and clearly, I presume I was introduced to language early and often.

I think of that as I see my grandson, who looks so much like my father, reading to his babies long before they can understand anything, except that it’s Daddy and his voice is giving them loving attention.


My father made up stories with us as the characters, and he sang us silly songs, like Phil Harris’ The Preacher and the Bear.

♫ Phil Harris - The Preacher And The Bear

When I started first grade at age five, I didn’t do well at reading and writing which puzzled everyone – parents, teacher, and principal (a family friend) – because I had a good vocabulary.

It took two years to discover that I couldn’t see past the end of my arm so I was getting nothing from the teacher’s writing on the board. The words on the board didn’t match up with what I saw in the books. At age seven, glasses turned the tide for me; I became a voracious reader.

When I was nine, we moved to a town where the girl next door was much like me in our love for reading, writing and learning new words. We would share books and read out loud together as if the books were plays.

After a few years, my family moved to the country. Since Carole was younger than I was, our paths didn’t cross in school a lot after that. Years later, when we visited each other after we both were wives and mothers, she told me of a conversation she had with a classmate after I left for college. She evidently said something in class that caused him to ask “Did you live next door or something to Marilyn Schroeder? (my maiden name) You sound just like her!”

And yet, and yet – when I think back on how limited this little country bumpkin’s vocabulary was compared to the highly-educated people I’ve run into over the years – oy vay! (Now there’s a phrase I didn’t grow up with in rural, small-town, middle America!)

Much of my expanded vocabulary was from reading. After a few embarrassing episodes when I mispronounced a word like Penelope (I was sure it was PEN-elope) and o-BAY-dient (obedient – after all it came from the word obey), I was careful not to use a word until I heard it pronounced.

What a blessing the computer is now. Not only can I look up any word I’m not familiar with, I can learn its meaning AND hear it pronounced by a disembodied voice, over and over if necessary.

Sometimes lately when I’ve been writing, I become aware of how few years a certain word has been part of my “constellation of loved words, and how many new ones I learn each year – not just new ones related to technology and inventions but beautiful, lush words that were there all the time, just hiding from me in books I hadn’t yet read.

I wish I could remember them all; I know them when I find myself writing or saying them: lodestar, ambiance, redolent, watershed, touchstone.

Just like the young Marilyn, the elderly Lyn also loves to learn new ones, preferably beautiful ones, and hopes to do so all my days. I have learned a few I’m not crazy about: basilar invagination, atrial and ventricular fibrillation, invasive carcinoma, neuropathies – I won’t go on and on, but I have to tell you I know more medical terms than some medical practitioners since spending decades learning about what makes this body tick and trying to do everything to keep it doing so.

And by the way, why did we need that ugly word, paradigm? What was wrong with pattern or example or archetype? It took me years to figure out what that word meant, pre-Google days, and I resented it.

Recently my bête-noire was the word, chimera. I could neither pronounce it nor remember what it meant. Finally I know both. What will tomorrow’s new word be? What are your beloved words?

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Hi Lyn, My college roomate's name was and is Penelope. Before I met her I had no idea how to pronounce that name. I loved reading this piece of yours on words. Your love of words has also led you to the love of playing Scrabble.

I enjoy the way you tell your story of your life. Each time you share a story, it is like reading a chapter in the history of youe family.

I, too, learned my vocabulary from reading. Like you, I mispronounced words. I pronounced Oregano 'ore-e-gan-o' until someone laughed at me and told me it was 'or-egg-an-o'.

My favorite word is serendipity. I just love saying it over and over.

Hi Lyn,

I learned most of my favorite words and expressions from that great talented writer of
books and screenplays,

He seldom used a word that didn't send the average young person like myself scurrying for her Dictionary.

After reading this one sentence below,I had to look up Eviscerate,Whitstable oysters,and who or what is the Nizam of Hyderabad?

“There the waiters' eyes sparkled and their pencils flew as she proceeded to eviscerate my wallet -Whitstable oysters, a sole, filet mignon, and a favorite salad of the Nizam of Hyderabad made of shredded five- pound notes."

This is just one example of his writing. I learned the words proletariat and evanescent from S.J. and when I looked up acquiesce I not only learned the meaning of the word I stopped pronouncing it AQUEEZE.

I hope you keep writing your stories here. I so enjoy perusing them as S.J. would say.

Nice story. I have a PhD in English and I still can't use "paradigm" without worrying I'm getting it wrong.

Lyn - Wonderful story and pictures as usual.

Good grief, a great-grandson! I don't have one of those yet, although I do have a nineteen-year-old granddaughter, so it may not be too far in the future.

I drove my sixth grade granddaughter down from Maine for a visit last weekend. She's into words too. Every day she tries to learn three new ones, and uses them in what she says and writes. Friday's words were eleemosynary, plethora, and potpouri. I don't think I have heard these words used as many times in my life-to-date as I did in that one and a half hour car ride! - Sandy

I too love words, but often can't find them in the dictionary since I can't figure out how to spell them. Today I finally had to call the big hotel in Seattle to find out how to spell concierge and I can never pronounce it correctly. Loved the story.

Wonderful story, Lyn. It is funny about the word paradigm. That was the first word I ever used that was outside of my regular vocabulary!

I love how you began your story with your loved ones reading to their children (and with pictures and sound!). How wonderful your family knew you so well that they were able to solve the mystery of your sight problem before you lost precious learning time. I was not so fortunate.

The word I have to always look up (like right now) is "hors d'oeuvres" It is not even English but it is commonly used. Talk about a speed bump in my writing! Oh the temptation to use "snacker-thingies"! I really enjoyed reading this, Lyn! Thank you.

Wonderful piece. Well done and so enjoyable.
But I'd like to put in a good word for paradigm. For me it connotes more than a changing pattern, it's a new way of seeing reality - a quantum shift in perception.

Oh, yes, great piece! And I did the same with Penelope tooo!!! Humiliated myself in reading aloud time, but.. I survived.

Bless your grandson, what a fine father. I love words and subscribe to AWAD, a word a day that sends the words to my email. My sons used to read our Latin dictionary and make up their own words. The most troubling thing for me about aging is the immediate use of some of those words.

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