By Jackie Leavitt
I remember the first time I owned a thesaurus. It was such a luxurious treat to have my own big book of words. I opened the tome and dived nose-first into the wondrous web of synonyms, antonyms and terms that I had no idea what they actually meant except in their near relation to other collections of letters and vowels.
What was the difference between complex versus convoluted? Audacious versus adventurous? Passionate versus fervent? The mastery lay in the second or third definition that added mysterious undertones. I realized the beautiful subtlety in choosing the perfect word to fit a situation so seamlessly, while using the wrong one almost dulled the imagination’s vibrancy by being slightly inaccurate.
I learned the weight and power of truth in language.
My main teacher in this was my mom – when I asked what a word meant, she would oh-so cleverly tell me to look it up in the dictionary. That small action not only frustrated me to bits, but also got me to pay attention to accurate definitions (and helped her avoid situations where she didn’t actually know the answer).
My mom would also indulge her own curiosity by spending hours looking up the roots, history and deeper meanings of terms on our old, cubed Windows computer with whirling dial-up Internet.
Today, my fascination continues in even small tasks, where I might actually feel dishonest when I use a word inaccurately. It can take me a solid half hour or more to pick out the right birthday or holiday note for someone. I never pick a card that says something untrue to my relationship with that person.
Words can be playful. They can be frivolous and frolicking. They can also be solid and straightforward. Understated and insinuated. Somber and sordid. Flirtatious and vivacious. I think that’s why I’m so tickled with alliterations, rhymes, rhythms and puns – it feels like little bubbles of champagne shaking loose to the top of my brain, bursting in brightness when they see the light: the words bounce free, innocently mischievous as they chuckle to themselves about their own meanings.