Words



My brother Bob, three years my senior, has been (and continues to be) a source of some of my most important life lessons, emerging from simple conversations. He does not remember these conversations, which pleases me, since my recollection becomes the prevailing story of these exchanges. He consented to my request to share the stories of these conversations here in this blog, and I am grateful to him for that. I acknowledge at the outset that memory is imperfect and hence I am probably describing less the conversation and more the emergent life lessons.


Here is an example. As a preschooler (I was creating patterns early), I once told Bob that I thought I had made a mistake and come to the wrong planet. He solemnly stared at me for a while and then said “You may be right about that”. Now you can see why he may not recall this, and of course, that exchange haunts me to this day. Those may not have been his exact words, but in my memory, those are his exact words. There are more questions here than answers.


Bob loves words, has published poetry, books, songs, homilies, and more. At some point during my years in grade school, probably prodded by a teacher, I decided I needed to expand my vocabulary. So, I started systematically looking up the meaning of words I didn’t know that I encountered in books I was reading. The bigger the word, the more enthused I became. I would then try to use the word in a conversation.


I tried out one of my new “big” words on Bob. He stared at me for a while (staring was part of the pattern), and then asked me why I was using that word. I enthusiastically explained my vocabulary expansion program, thinking he would be impressed that I was creating my own “big” vocabulary. I don’t remember the word or if I used it appropriately, but I remember his response.


He explained to me that a “big” vocabulary was not about “big” words but involved knowing the meaning of so many words that you could make choices. If you knew what you are trying to communicate and you knew to whom you are sending your message, then a “big” vocabulary was so extensive that you could pick exactly the best possible words to effectively explain your message to this specific recipient.


Now as is obvious, that is not what he said but what I understood as his message. We were kids. Still, I got this life lesson. Words were not indicators of intellectual superiority but vehicles of communication, and if you hoped to communicate well, you selected the words that others could understand well enough to get your message. This lesson shaped my life in the land of words.


Years later, writing manuscripts for publication, policies for a doctoral program, letters to a campus donor, podium presentations…the lesson persisted. My colleagues were bemused at my editing and re-editing of one or another word, insisting on changes they thought unnecessary and obsessive. I didn’t. I was trying to get my message across with optimal chances for success. These were choices.


As is perhaps self-evident, Bob’s lesson serves as context for the decisions I make about words as I write my blog posts. If you get my messages, then I have succeeded.


“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” ~Albert Schweitzer