What’s YOUR Claim to Fame?


Here’s mine!

How can I make this claim? Easy. I write like Edward Bulwer-Lytton … or like a contemporary Irish journalist.

I think I was born using big words. When I was in kindergarten, like all the new schoolchildren, I was sent to Miss W., the school speech therapist, for evaluation. She sat down with me, on those ridiculously small kiddie chairs, at one of those ridiculously large, round kiddie craft tables, set up in the cloakroom at the end of the hallway (she traveled the school district, so she had no office at this school), and she shuffled her flash cards before dealing them out, one at a time. The cards had no words, only pictures, and the test was for me to state the name of each object that they portrayed.

I was careful to enunciate clearly, for I had learned to read aloud by the time I was 4 years old, from the example of my mother, who had an excellent public-speaking voice that she had polished during her years as a telephone operator. Everything went fine, until Miss W. turned over a card with a line drawing that depicted a motor vehicle. A sedan, if I recall aright.

“Automobile,” said I.

“WHAT?” quoth she.

I was puzzled. “Automobile!” I repeated, thinking, What’s the matter with the woman? Doesn’t she know what’s on her own flash card?*

The evaluation was quickly completed, and I was sent back to the classroom. Unlike many of my “peers,” I was never subjected to speech therapy sessions with Miss W.

In Bulwer-Lytton’s day, literacy was a highly prized accomplishment, often achieved only at great cost, and reading aloud was a valued talent worth cultivating. People wanted words to paint pictures inside their heads, whether they read the books, or had someone read aloud to them.

Today, literacy is a free choice that so many are willing to do without, that technology has gone backwards, to accommodate finger-pointing with touch-sensitive screens. People are so accustomed to color photography that they need to see swooping, flashing, 3-D animation, and they’ve been so deafened by wearing stereophonic dual ear-buds that they need to be roared at with SurroundSound, just to capture their attention.

IndoirishtimesMy own experience has been that the use of a large, varied, and polysyllabic vocabulary is a compliment to the listener’s or reader’s intelligence. For example, over a period of nearly five years, I read the two major Irish newspapers daily, and observed Irish journalists routinely use big words, archaic words, and even strings of alliterative words in newspaper columns. Nobody ever remarked on their writing style (and Irish newspaper readers are not bashful about criticizing columnists). And no, I am not Irish. I’m half French and half Polish (like Chopin, but I can’t play the piano anywhere near as well.)

I’ll take a book filled with florid prose over a brain-bludgeoning with flamboyant technology, any day.

* Of course, I didn’t have a clue at the time, but she probably expected me to say, “car,” to reveal problems with pronouncing R. Now I’m reminded of an experience when my oldest son was in kindergarten, and the teacher was concerned about my son’s color perception, because he had not circled the line drawing of an apple on a quiz that asked him to “mark all the things that are RED.” I explained that he had never seen a red apple, because the only apples I bought were the bright GREEN Granny Smith variety.



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