What Word Was That?
by Jasmine Ngai
These are stories of words- about them, containing them, and using them.
The sight of seventeen thick, imposing, identical volumes neatly aligned on the shelf was slightly incongruous with the brightly-colored bulletin boards and whimsical laminated posters on display throughout the elementary school classroom.
On the final day of fifth grade, the teachers gifted each student with a full-sized, hardcover copy of the American Heritage College Dictionary. I recall feeling an unmistakable sense of curiosity and reverence while riffling through its delicate pages for the first time, perusing them for words which I already knew, words which I would learn, words which would eventually become staples in my vocabulary, and words which I would never find an opportunity to use in my lifetime. The hardback’s inner front cover bore a handwritten inscription of a Mark Twain quote: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter- ‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” This sentiment eventually became a permanent fixture in my impressionable mind, and I trace my fascination with words back to that fifth-grade classroom.
This is a story of synonyms.
The feeling of finding precisely the right word to describe your thoughts is exhilarating- euphoric, even. Sometimes you need to scroll all the way through the Thesaurus.com webpage before painstakingly identifying the word you need from an endless list of synonyms. Other times, all you need to conjure up a certain word is the slightest recollection of a distant memory.
Do you have a favorite word? Here is one of mine: “cacophony.”
Personally, I think this word is beautiful, although a situation that is described as a cacophony surely isn’t meant to be. Its synonyms include “din,” “racket,” “clamor,” and “discord,” yet none of these words can vividly or accurately depict, describe, or emulate a true cacophony of sound. It’s a disconcertingly lovely word to describe something so outwardly unpleasant, and the dissonance between its definition and the pure musicality of the word is what intrigues me most. There are situations in which a synonym simply will not suffice; this is one of them.
I first came across “cacophony” in a mosaic of words, among others such as “camaraderie,” “humdrum,” and “hullabaloo.” Colorful printouts of these words and their definitions were plastered on each wall of my 4th grade classroom, as an effort by the teacher to introduce her 9-year-old students to the wonders of a continuously expanding vocabulary. However, at our young ages, many (most) of these complex dictionary definitions meant little to us. Instead, we relied on the visual appearances of the words to construct our personal interpretations of them, never quite understanding their precise definitions or pronunciations, never quite disturbed by this uncertainty. We learned to live amongst these words, experimenting with their cadence and structure, never fearing (nor doubting) our mistakes.
I collect words, even if I have no immediate use for them in my own writing or speech. Instead, I accumulate a reservoir of words, preserving them in a notebook for future use. This notebook is filled with words I find so powerful that I can only use them sparingly, a strategy I must strictly adhere to in order to maximize their impact. I have to restrain myself every time.
This is a story of homonyms.
There is a popular Cantonese nursery rhyme set to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down.” My parents used to sing this song to me, and under their expert recitation, it was quite beautiful- simple yet profound when interpreted as a cautionary tale about consequence and fate: “There was a little bird who fell into the water. The current carried him away.”
As a young child, I would burst into a fit of giggles because this is what I understood of the song (and boisterously sang back to anyone willing to listen):
“There was a little bird who fell into the water. His snot flowed away.”
It was several years before I finally realized that this was not a correct translation of the rhyme; I was simply mistaken over the tone of a single word, completely altering my understanding of the lyrics in its entirety. The mortification I felt upon this discovery resurfaces into my consciousness every time I utter a word in Cantonese.
Water to wicked. Salty to sobbing. Vinegar to grass. Smiling to burning. Four to dead.
The Cantonese translations of these words are not all perfect homonyms, but have merely taken on this classification under my embarrassingly rudimentary Cantonese speaking skills. All are examples of accidental homonym exchanges I have made in front of my parents, fluent peers, restaurant owners in various Chinatowns throughout the country, and most humiliatingly, esteemed, elderly relatives in Hong Kong. I’ve received the full spectrum of possible reactions: confusion, disappointment, laughter, amusement, bewilderment, encouragement, and contempt. However, by far the most common reaction I encounter when I make a communication blunder is the dreaded blank stare: a momentary pause, glazed-over eyes, furrowed eyebrows, the slightest head tilt. The sequence of these signs is distinctive and all too familiar to me. When the initial pause occurs, I know it is still possible to salvage my dignity, so I begin to desperately rephrase my sentences and find meandering ways of using simpler words to describe my thoughts. But by the time the furrowed eyebrows appear, I know it is a hopeless cause. This serves as my cue to frantically begin miming my words in a futile attempt to break across the suffocating language barrier. Every faulty tone I produce is a clear hazard- I’m acutely aware of how each word that escapes my mouth is an opportunity for mishap and miscommunication of the highest degree.
When I was twelve-years-old, my mom dropped me off at the curb with a restaurant order and a twenty-dollar bill in hand, a block away from the Chinese restaurant we frequented in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. I’d been to this establishment countless of times with family and friends, but never alone. I sheepishly entered the busy restaurant and took my spot at the end of the line, mentally preparing myself to order in Cantonese and already imagining my crude attempts at stringing together a barely comprehensible sentence within the next few minutes. Without the security of speaking the language fluently and without the crutch of my parents’ presence to quickly translate my attempts at Cantonese into actual Cantonese, I felt vulnerable and exposed as I approached the counter to order. I knew that on the surface, I looked no different from the multitudes of other customers in the restaurant that day, loudly chatting in rapid-fire Cantonese. Yet I also knew that any phrase coming out of my mouth would betray any semblance of assuredness I once possessed.
The hypothetical triumphant ending to this story would commence as follows: I confidently step up to the counter, order in fluid, flawless Cantonese, and walk out victoriously, with take-out boxes in each hand.
Needless to say, this is not what transpires.
Instead, I manage to mumble an incoherent statement, somehow butchering the tone of a single word so atrociously that I accidentally order a “face” instead of “noodles.”
I was horrified. I am horrified. I feel as though I will be eternally horrified.
What does it really mean to find the right word?
The power to transform a sentence often lies with a single word, but
Did you understand that? Neither did I, but perhaps I will now.