Wednesday, August 07, 2013

A way with words

I’ve been thinking about my writing history over the past few days, in connection with a job application, and concluded that my mother can be credited with my vocabulary and some of my facility with words – but not for the usual reasons. It isn’t that I have inherited verbal dexterity or was taught a good vocabulary, but rather that a dictionary and good reference work were essential tools in my childhood and teenage years.

She is a Mrs Malaprop, always handy with the wrong word in the wrong place, or often a word that sounds similar but has an entirely different meaning from the one intended. It isn’t something that crept up on her with age either – in her teens she memorably asked for a John Thomas when entertained to dinner, instead of the Jack Daniels she’d meant to request.

Only this morning she told me to “mea culpa” when what she’d intended was carpe diem. It’s that sort of thing which made me very keen to consult a dictionary more or less whenever she said anything unfamiliar, to double check that any phrase she referred to meant what she thought it did. Thus she recently asked my nephews if they had been fraggled (fraped). I do wish I’d had the foresight to record the many examples of this over the past decades.

This facility for getting things a little wrong doesn’t just encompass words but also gestures. One day, driving to work she was cut up by someone who clearly didn’t know where they were going. She intended to make the US sign for “up yours” which involves poking up the middle finger, but instead used her index finger – I’m not sure what the recipient will have thought she was trying to say.

To her horror, the man she had gesticulated to, followed her into the office car park. She quickly scuttled into the office and was concerned when she realised he was following her in. She had a sudden realization that the man she had just encountered might be a visitor to one of the senior managers she worked for and discovered, just in time to dive under her desk, that he was indeed the VIP from head office who was arriving to see her boss. Stuff like that happens to her all the time. The people in the office passed her a paper bag with eye holes cut out. Only my mother would have seriously considered wearing it….

My friends envy my relationship with my mother, and she is indeed a loving and selfless mother who has helped me enormously in so many ways. But should you ever have cause to rely on her for an arrangement, do bear in mind that she will generally get names, places, dates and times wrapped around her neck, and do not take at face value anything she says. This is a woman who suffered from asthma most of her life and was still spelling it athsma at 65. Not because of typos. Deliberately.

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