Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Problem with Words

Most people who know me would say I have a pretty good grasp of the English language. I attribute some of this to good genes and most of it to my word of the day marathons and my quest to read the dictionary when I was nine.

I drank in the pages of Webster’s and Roget’s. First I read the word. Then I read the definitions. Then I chose the definition I liked the best. Next, I closed my eyes and tried to spell the word correctly. Then I tried to repeat the definition exactly right. Once finished, I would open my eyes and scan the word again.  If my recitation was close, I’d move on.  If not, I made myself start over.

Thinking back on this I have to laugh. “Close” in spelling has proven to be quite unhelpful! But at the time it was all about quantity!

In my early twenties, I discovered you could rent CD’s from the library. Instead of going for works of fiction, I looked for CD’s rife with words and definitions. I would pop these into my various stereos and listen to words for hours on end... but listening was only part of the game. Using them in sentences was the part I loved. I tried to weave my new found words into everyday conversation.  Standing at the chip bin in my tassel laden, Mexican waitress outfit you might hear me say something like this;

“She stood with a lacy snood covering half of her eye and started a jerkwater preamble about the pervicacious man in booth two.”

Though I found it great fun, I learned quickly that using sentences like this did not help my ability to communicate.  So I dialed it back a little. Instead of stringing together many words, I just tried to use them here and there.  A conversation about sleeping in church might sound like;

“I could tell you were asleep in the meeting because your head was nutating and you had drool on your chin.”

I never understood the reaction that usually resulted in something like, “what the hell did you just say?” After a while, those closest to me said nothing at all.  Instead, they just rolled their eyes and walked away.

I admit that sometimes things sounded a little munificent, but why not?

Other times, my kids or my husband would chastise me with annoyance.
Them:  “Oh, so you’ve started your word of the day thing again.”
Me: “No, actually that word is part of my standard vocabulary.”
Them: “Well it shouldn’t be!” ….stomping  away disgustedly.
Me: “Killjoy!”

But, I ramble…my real intent of this writing is to explore what happened to my brain around idioms. I’ve been told time and again that I am a very good communicator. Yet, for some reason, I never get them right! This has become more evident since I spend a lot of time as the keynote presenter in rooms full of people.  As part of my discourse, I often make an off the cuff comment that results in stares of confusion or peals of laughter.

Yesterday, I did it twice.

After a very effective communication about initiating a project correctly I said, “Let me leave you with one last thought on this topic.”

Dramatic pause.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pint of gold.”

I thought I said it right.
 I looked down to orient myself to the notes for the next section. When I looked back up half of the people looked confused and the other half were snickering under their breath.

Me: “What’s going on?”
The cute blonde girl at the back of the room: “it’s a pound of cure”
Me: “What?”
Her: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”
Me: “What did I say?”
Her trying not to laugh, “A pint of gold”
The room erupted in laughter.

Later in the afternoon we were in a robust discussion about Key Stakeholders. Someone wanted to know why you wouldn’t just work around them?

“Here is the deal,” I said. “You shouldn’t lick a gift horse in the mouth.”
I tried to continue my thought…”This key stakeholder is the….”

Jason spoke up though he could barely get the words out through is giggles.
“You did it again! You said you shouldn’t LICK a gift horse in the mouth.”
The room erupted again.
“I think you got that wrong!” He tried to catch his breath.
“You shouldn’t lick ANY horse in the mouth.”
People started falling out of their chairs.

“Ok,” I said. “I think we better take a break”

So, I’m making a list of the idioms I ALWAYS get wrong. I hope by publishing it that one of two things will happen.  1) Either my brain will finally realize that these can never be used again. Or 2) and better yet, some of you will decide to adopt them too, and together we’ll start our own language!

The grass is always green where they water
It is no skin off my tires
Go down like a lead boat
Idle hands make light of work
One couch short of a living room
Started off on the wrong leg
A pig in a poke is worth two in the bush
Rome wasn’t built in an hour
The ball is in your yard

This just went over like a lead kite