I was introduced to words and reading through this series of famous/infamous little books. It was 1947, first grade, George Elementary School. Pauline Wilson was my teacher.
From the very beginning, I had a strange love/hate relationship with reading. I began with a weird issue with the ‘th’ words. They seemed to ‘look’ the same to me. I confused the ‘the’s, theirs, those, and that’s. But eventually, I got that early issue straightened out.
Thanks to Viola E. Lake, George School had a fantastic library. And once I mastered reading, the library was my favorite place in the school. Today I have a few books on my shelves that are copies of books I read while enrolled at George!
But it wasn’t just what the books spoke me that fascinated me so… it was also the WORDS used to tell the story or teach the message. Early on I somehow realized that words are simply TOOLS which are used to transfer THOUGHTS and UNDERSTANDING from the writer to the reader. Some writers have better tools at their disposal than others. The same is true in the speaker/hearer relationship. A correct use and understanding of the word-tools are VITAL to transferring and receiving accurate information!
This word/tool/usage consideration has been with me for most of my life, and this is testified to buy the ‘prophesy’ attached to my name and photo in our Central High School yearbook, Class of 1959. It said of me, ‘In arguing, too, this person owing his skill… for even though vanquished, he could argue still.” This is an amazingly accurate ‘prophesy’ huh?
Even today, I often find myself pondering a word, and asking myself, if I truly understand this word… it’s origins… it’s true definition… how and why it may have come into use and abuse… and if the speaker/writer is truly using the correct tool for the job. I’m often told by others that this trait is like beating a dead horse.
My debate ‘prophesy’ (including debating myself) goes back much farther than high school. When I was not much more than ten, I attended the annual Halloween Carnival held in Battlefield Park. That year, they had a ‘fortune teller’ booth. Kids reached into a glass fishbowl and withdrew a small slip of paper on which was written our ‘fortune.’ Mine said that I’d be a LAWYER! Funny that I clearly remember that casual event of so long ago. But I suppose that memory speaks volumes. Just as an attorney does at trial, I find myself ‘examining and cross-examining’ LANGUAGE… written, spoken, and thought!
This past week a single word drifted in front of mind’s eye, and my questioning began. It was a simple three-letter word, but one that I cannot specifically remember being used in the FUN WITH DICK AND JANE books of yesteryear. That word is CAN. Could the writer/editors of these books have understood the true depth of meaning to this simple, very small word — and that it was beyond the understanding of the average six year old?
The word CAN presents itself in two-forms, as a noun and as a verb. In the noun form, CAN refers to (usually) a cylindrical container, such as a can of soup. We’ll not be considering the noun form… but rather, the verb form. Of course, there are also dozens of examples of ‘can’ being used as slang to represent everything from one’s behind to a prison cell.
The verb form of the word CAN means 1) To know how to do something, or to have the ability to do something. It can also mean 2) To be allowed or enabled to do something. And 3) To be possible.
As you CAN see, ‘can’ as a verb is quite a complex term, one that must take into consideration linked facts, truths, and aspects beyond itself. To be a ‘simple’ three-letter word it is actually far more complex and all-important that it’s size appears.
Personally, I was quite ‘blown away’ by this revelation!
The mis-use of ‘can’ WILL get us into trouble if we allow it to. I use the term ‘mis-use’ because people are pre-disposed to be what I refer to as ‘language-lazy,’ by slaughtering ‘the king’s English.’ Consider the following:
Wife to husband: Can you go to the store for me? We need milk.
(Two hours later)
Wife: Did you get the milk?
Wife: Why not?
Husband: You didn’t ask me if I WOULD go to the store, but if I COULD go.
I COULD but I didn’t want to. So I didn’t.
I told you that ‘CAN’ is a huge word to have only three letters! Try the above silly little above example sometime yourself and experience just how important this small three-letter truly is!
Consider this: How many times have you walked into a store and been asked by a sales-clerk, ‘Can I help you?’ Let’s carry that question through to a detailed and accurate answer to that question.
Clerk: Can I help you?
Customer: That remains to be seen.
Clerk: Do what???
Customer: You asked me ‘Can I help you,’ but I don’t know as yet if you can or cannot. What you actually should have asked is ‘May I help you,’ and the answer to that would have been ‘Yes you may.’ At that point either you would have asked my reason for wanting or needing your assistance, and next you would have answered with the reason you could or could not assist me with the item that I wish to buy and possibly of the availability of it here in your store.’
But we don’t want to be accurate, we want to be lazy. This is how the clever prosecuting attorney ‘tricks’ the guilty party into admitting to a crime — or in the case of the defense attorney, tricks the jury into hearing and believing something that is not completely accurate. They take advantage of people’s language laziness.
Words matter. Their basic meanings matter. The understanding of these meanings matters. And, their usage matters. ALL WORDS matter, the large, and the small. Respect them, and they will respect you.
Trick or Treat is a kid’s event at Halloween… not a method of communication.