Where’d Them Words Come From Anywhos?

I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying. ~ Oscar Wilde

I can relate to Oscar Wilde. More to the point, if you’ve read much of what I write, you can probably also relate to Oscar Wilde. I pretend to write the way I do in order to invite you to stop and think. The truth is probably closer to the fact that I can’t seem ever to keep to just one topic at a time – often in the same sentence! It’s probably a curse. Nevertheless, I attempt to turn it into an endearment. You’ll have to be the judge as to how I’m doing with that.

It occurs to me that some of my readers are simply too young to understand or relate to a number of my references. Consequently, it seems appropriate to give a little lesson in doing research. Yes, yes, I know this sounds a little too much like school or a class in ancient history, but I assure you it can be fast and fun.

When I was growing up, we had a set of encyclopedias in the bookcase — sort of like Wikipedia printed on paper. In fact, it was the set you see in the photo attached to this blog. Yep, that three-year-old boy in the picture was encouraged to look things up even then. You can probably imagine how old that must make that set of encyclopedias, but let’s not go there, okay?

Anyway, my siblings and I had a tendency to ask questions about a lot of things. My memory of it is that I did a great deal of the asking. I’ve probably mentioned before that “why” was one of my favorite questions growing up. It’s not a question parents like to hear, however, particularly if it’s in response to being told to do something. “Why?” was often answered with, “Because I told you so.” A second “Why?” was likely to get me in more trouble than it was probably worth. Somehow, I tended to forget that part on a fairly regular basis.

Now, back to research. It became a bit of a game in our house to see who could wait the longest before one of us would finally get up and go to the shelf to look up the answer to the question asked. This was, obviously, in the world before the internet. Mother’s usual response to many questions was, “Look it up.” That seemed infinitely more trouble than if she’d simply answered the question. Like many things, however, it’s likely she didn’t know the answer or, at least, the whole answer. That being true, mother was often the one who would finally walk to the shelf to look up the information needed. In fact, that game continued for the rest of our lives until her death. She simply couldn’t resist the temptation to know the answer once the question had been asked. I’m convinced I am blessed with the gift of curiosity from both my mother and my father.

The result of all this curiosity has been a lifetime of looking for answers, too often in the wrong places, I suppose. I discovered along the way that I have an analytical mind. I try to follow the patterns in any given task to see how I might be able to work faster or better within the framework. A friend at work recently looked at me like I’d lost my mind when I said I was trying to see the logic in how some aspect of our new billing system worked. Her dismay, of course, stems from the problems of learning anything new. I explained that there is logic in how the system works even if it is stupid logic. We are, in fact, surrounded by stupid logic on a regular basis in life. That said, if I can see the logic, no matter how inept, I have a chance of figuring out how to make it work to my advantage. Beneath it all, I think we’re really pretty lazy. Faster and easier allows me to do more with less. And, having discovered the bonuses of a good nap, I need the extra time.

I must admit my memory isn’t nearly good enough to feel certain about some of the things that pop into my mind from, oh, say, fifty years ago. But, as long as I can remember a piece of it or even something about a piece of it, I can do the research needed to boost my memory. So, Google has become my friend over the years. I can usually find out something about almost anything within a matter of seconds or, at the most, minutes. The more I do this, the easier it becomes.

For instance, I wanted to mention Brylcream in a recent blog. How the heck do you spell Brylcream? No problem. I begin typing “Brill” into Google and, in many cases, Google hints at possibilities for my search and for the spelling. If that fails, I can always try “hair cream, 50s.” Amazing what pops up. Suddenly, I have links to other things from my past I may not have thought about in years, giving me additional sources with which to torture you in a blog. Win-win.

Of course, a little prudence is in order here. Suppose you wanted to find a Bible reference about lust, knowing you should “help” someone you know by pointing out yet another of their personal failings. Simply typing in “lust” may lead to some interesting links. Say, perhaps, you really didn’t want to know all that much about the 1985 John Waters film, Lust in the Dust, starring Divine and Tab Hunter. Admittedly, that reference may be tame by comparison to some of the other links that could pop up. Fear not, most links are fairly self-evident without clicking on them, saving you the embarrassment of seeing something you’d likely rather not.

Usually, this research is a case of less is more. If you get too specific with your search, you’re likely to come up with too few good leads. Instead, Google (or the search engine of your choice) will try to come up with references to each individual word you typed. I try to start small, then work my way up, if necessary. Using my Brylcream example, beginning to type “brillcr” almost immediately begins to suggest Brylcream. I get leads to “Brylcream CVS,” “Brylcream TV Commercial 1950s – YouTube,” and “A brief history of Brylcream.” Who knew Brylcream has a history? Even Wikipedia gets in on the act, informing me that Sara Lee bought the personal care unit of SmithKline Beecham in 1992. Now, why should I be surprised that a chewing gum manufacturer originally made Brylcream.

So, looking up a meaning, a spelling, or related topics can become an adventure unto itself. As I write, I tend to use search engines to check a spelling, a bit of grammar, or to remind myself the year of an event I know happened but have no idea as to when. There are seemingly endless things I know happened but have no idea of the date. Often I find the decade is about the closest I can come to remembering time – and even then I often find I’m wrong.

Then, too, my memory can be woefully inadequate when remembering the meaning of words. In my reading, I wonder how many times I’m going to need to look up the meaning of hubris? A lot, apparently. Hubris: extreme pride or arrogance. How could I forget that? Arrogance: an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions. Presumptuous: failing to observe the limits of what is permitted or appropriate. See? Endless. Don’t let me catch you saying you’re bored and have nothing to do. One thing leads to the next, then the next, and, finally, the next. Before you know it, you’re reading complete sentences. Pretty neat trick, eh?

I believe I was served well by being encouraged to be curious – even when that curiosity was an annoyance to my parents. I’m not content simply trying to infer [deduce or conclude from evidence and reasoning rather than from explicit statements] the meaning of a word merely by its context. When I assume [i.e., make an ass out of u and me], I too often get it wrong. I believe I’ve done enough assuming for several lifetimes. Assumptions keep me in the dark. They keep me from even trying to find a further truth about myself or others. So, I look up stuff. And it’s amazing what I can learn when I look things up more than once. I discover that truth is fluid. The context changes throughout life. What I knew absolutely at some point in my life turns out not to be true for me today. The times I’ve stopped growing in life are those times I refused to ask new questions or seek new truth about old questions.

Ever say things you think mean one thing only to find out they mean something completely different? For instance [e.g.], when should I use e.g. and when i.e.? In other words [i.e.], what do they mean? No, no, I’m not going to tell you what they mean. Okay, perhaps I hinted a little at their meaning but I don’t want to discourage you from looking these things up. If I did that for every word in my writing, we’d be here all night. No, a little homework never killed anyone and you are no exception no matter how much you’d like to insist your case is special.

A new school year has started. What better time to take up the task of asking questions anew? Google doesn’t even expect you to bring it an apple. That would just make the keys sticky and make it more difficult to get the answers you seek. Let’s not make life any more difficult than it is already.

Let’s recap, shall we? Less is more, Brylcream and chewing gum have something in common, you’re never too young to learn something new, you’re never too old to forget something old and end up thinking you’ve just learned something new, and complete sentences are good. Just keep those cards and letters coming to yourself. You are, after all, the only one who can know your truth. I’d just suggest that it’s never a good idea to simply settle on the one truth. It leaves you asleep at the switch when your new truth is trying to nudge its way into your life and show you you’re never really done with the growing up part of life. From diapers to diapers, every step we take is another step toward home.

I’m still full of questions, though “why” is no longer such an important question to me. Knowing why doesn’t change my now. “What’s next?” is a better question these days. While knowing the why can still leave me wallowing in the midst of suffering – all the while wondering “why me?” – “what’s next?” is capable of helping me use the necessary suffering of life to take the next step forward toward home.

Class dismissed.