512 Words

A Superior Vocabulary

Thomas Sennett

Children sometimes pick up odd phrases, and repeat them for weeks or months until the novelty of wears off. Usually, this happens with something they've heard on TV. A jingle, perhaps. In their near-endless recitation a child can imbue an innocent phrase with meanings never intended by the copy writer, from the lascivious to profound.

About twenty years ago, my son Patrick---then four years old and at the peak of his childhood desire to mimic---overheard me describe the family dog using a simile. As the overweight dog bellied up to his food bowl, I commented that he was "like a pig."

"Like a pig" became Patrick's favorite phrase. He repeated it hundreds of times a day to all manner of people and animals. Even if the phrase was in some sense appropriate, it was often very impolite to say. The obese check out lady at the A&P was loudly proclaimed by Patrick to be "like a pig"---a description which resonated with the startled adults waiting on the grocery line, but which was not appreciated by the clerk. We next met the saccharine-sweet minister's wife. She, too, was "like a pig." However, the minister's wife didn't know how to respond to Patrick's designation, and accepted the demeaning sobriquet as if it were an honor.

A thin young lady who lived next door and whom I suspected of being anorexic was also referred to by Patrick, and within her ear shot, as being "like a pig." I became concerned that this comment might feed her delusional self image of being overweight, and encourage her to more self-destructive dieting.

One afternoon I was with Patrick and we were headed to the post office when I saw a fat policeman standing out front, his belly hanging well over his belt like one of the natural wonders of the earth. I was never fond of cops, and realized that if Patrick engaged in one of his outbursts with the officer it could be trouble. We turned around and went back to the car. That was enough. Patrick had to curb his tongue.

"Patrick, you can't say that everybody you meet is 'like a pig,'" I told to him sternly.

"Why? It's fun." Patrick asked. He was so innocent I couldn't be angry.

Then I had an idea.

"I have another word for you that means 'it's like a pig.' The word is porcine. Poor-sign," I said to him. "Its a grown-up word, but it means the same thing. Say it all you want."

And this is what Patrick did. When later that day we met the overweight mechanic with his pants hanging off his ass he was no longer "like a pig" but was merely "porcine." Despite my boy's put down, the mechanic shook Patrick's hand and smiled.

Few people in our society---where vocabulary is largely defined by television---know the value of a superior vocabulary. But Patrick grew up to know it. Ironically, and perhaps depressingly, today he makes his living insulting people with language they don't understand. He's a Wall Street lawyer.

Copyright ©1997 Thomas Sennett. All Rights Reserved.

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June, 1997
Issue #14

512 Words