I sometimes get tied up in word games in which the object is to find as many words as possible from a jumbled array of letters. In some games the array is only 6 letters, in other games there are dozens of letters from which to form words.
What I noticed the other night, while playing Word Dojo on a Megatouch game machine, is how the race to form as many words as possible is sometimes accompanied by memories of how I first learned of a certain word, or else a memory of the time when a certain word made a distinct impression.
It’s funny how these flourishes of memory dot my mind in my race to create as many words as possible. The memories that surface are so distinct, like dreams while fast asleep, but like those dreams they quickly slip away. To prevent that from happening I wrote some of them down last week.
INTER: "Inter" is a word I never thought of until I started roaming the cemeteries of New York. I do not have the negative energy for pet peeves, but I often correct those who mis-use the word or omit it altogether in favor of "burial." This mistake often happens when describing people whose bodies are in mausoleums. I often hear people say that someone is "buried" in a mausoleum, but in most cases this is simply not true. People are interred (above ground) in mausoleums, not buried. This word, then, is part of the answer to the famous riddle "Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?" The answer to this question is simple: nobody. Nobody is buried at Grant’s Tomb. I have been to Grant’s Tomb and I can report with certainty that neither Ulysses S. Grant nor his wife Julia Grant are buried there. They are interred above ground in crypts.
Recently I have seen fit to remember the day I learned the difference between "inter-" and "intra-" when used as a prefix. I learned this in high school, long before I ever heard of the Internet or intranets. It was early in our freshman year and we were in a classroom in which some upperclassmen were telling us a thing or two about life in the big schoolyard. Someone mentioned an upcoming intramural match between upper and lower classes. I don’t remember the details of the match (it might have been wrestling) but I remember how one of the upperclassmen carefully explained that intramurals were within the school, and intermurals were tournament involving other schools in the city. To this day that little bit of commentary informs my knowledge of what "Internet" means (the network of networks).
I thought of this yesterday when I saw one of those funny "I just found the Internet!" commercials.
INNOCUOUS: This is a long word for Word Dojo but I recently managed to play it. I first learned the true meaning of this word in college after I ignorantly lobbed it into an argument. The argument was friendly but spirited. I wanted to dismiss someone’s logic as offensive or (worse) banal. For some reason I thought "innocuous" meant a cross between both those things: offensively banal, or so lacking in merit as to be strenuously vacant. I think I imagined "innocuous" was a compound word combining "inane" and "obnoxious." I was wrong, of course, and the others in the conversation nicely pointed out to me that I probably meant to use a different word. "Innocuous," they explained, meant harmless, as in "innoculate."
I learned the proper meaning of the word, but I also discovered something interesting: Dropping a bluntly inappropriate word or phrase into a debate has a magical way of derailing the thoughts of others and perhaps giving the speaker a chance to regroup and change the subject. I may try that some time. When someone introduces an argument for which I have no retort I’ll sneer and say something meaningless, like "That’s like picking cherries with your granny’s mousetrap!" I will then (skillfully, of course) change the subject before the other person’s confusion has time to articulate itself into asking what the hell that meant.
NIB: I think I first learned the word "nib" while watching the "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." I may be wrong about this but I seem to remember Tony Randall asking Johnny if he knew what the tip of a pen was called. Johnny (as I remember it) did not know, and Tony Randall answered "It’s a nib." Johnny went "Aah!" in that way he sometimes went "Aah!" and I stored away that useless piece of trivia for future use. As a mere 3-letter word "nib" which regularly surfaces in word games and crossword puzzles of all shapes and sizes.
LICE: In the 3rd or 4th grade the local Tampa newscast ran a story about a lice outbreak at a city school. It was not my school, nor was it anywhere near my school, but somehow a lice outbreak seemed like cause for concern for all schools. I didn’t know what lice was but it sure sounded bad. I came away from that newscast thinking that kids with lice were walking around with full-size rodents and chickens milling around in their hair. I don’t know when I learned what lice really is, and while lice is no joke at least it is not as extreme as that Tampa newscast made it sound to my young and impressionable mind.