Dear Lily June,
I love your father. I truly do. But in some ways, because we’re both poets, our love affair is a derivative of our first (and longest-lasting) love: our love of words.
Because yesterday’s letter was a little heavy, I’ve decided to go light today and just tell you a few of my favorite words and expressions that I can’t ever say without a smile. May they bring you the joy they’ve brought me, little (ladle) Lily.
This is a new favorite, added to my repertoire only because of you. You’ve not yet said your official first word, but your babbling instantly sounded like you were saying the phrase
“buttered bad guys.”
Picturing a burglar slathered in a creamy, yellow spread is enough to draw my wry grin, and further, the expression reminds me of the first line in one of my first poetry teacher’s, Lynn Emanuel’s, poem, “Single Girl. One Room Flat.”:
“Even the butter’s a sleazy block of light.”
This, of course, makes me think of the time when we’d left your cousin Martin alone for a minute in your great-grandmother Marie’s kitchen. He couldn’t have been older than four, and was likely much younger, when we stumbled in and there he was, happily spooning butter that had been left out on the table into his mouth like it was ice cream. I will never forget that look on his face. It, like the butter, was pure gold.
This is, of course, one of the powers of words for me: the endless links a single word can create in the chain of my memory.
It’s all about the feel of this one in my mouth (the word and the fruit). Most people pronounce it “razz-berry” and I absolutely love that in some strange twist of the American English speaking tongue, “sp” can be said as “zz,” as though the light hair that grows on it like a fuzz tempered how we talk about it. Rebel that I be, though, I demand to pronounce it as it’s spelled, heavy on the p-: rasP*berry.
Raised as a Pittsburgher, your mother, you’ll find, often wrassles with correct pronunciations anyway. While in the South, local speakers’ inclusive plural, standing in for “you all,” was “y’all,” in Pittsburgh, they use the far more convoluted contraction: “y’inz.” As such, those who employ a thick Pittsburghese accent are known, locally, as y’inzers (though academic linguists argue how much of this accent is affected, laid on thick for the tourist trap.)
However, I find it an authentic part of my speaking background that I have a hard time, if I can at all, hearing any difference between the name “Don” and the time of day “dawn.” I absolutely cannot distinguish, without context, between the past-tense action of catch, “caught,” and the cheap substitute for a bed, “cot.” C’est la Pittsburgh vie.
In the meantime, my love of raspberries is literal, too, as well as blackberries, which makes me think of Robert Hass’s sad poem, “Meditations at Lagunitas” in which he proclaims, philosophically,
“A word is elegy to what it signifies.”
3) Little Ladle
This one, too, is new. I don’t make friends easily, and so when I take a shine to someone, it’s hard-won but deep-rooted. There was a poet who recently left the place where I work, but who had always charmed me with her smile and her, like mine, love of language. Just last week, she checked in with me by email from her new university, sending me a poem she thought I’d like. In it, there’s a line about the poet’s wife,
“When my wife is sad, she says / little ladle.”
Lily, I couldn’t love that more as a pick-me-up expression. It’s worth saying over and over because of the way the alliteration tickles. I promised that poet, whenever I thought of her, missing the way her enthusiasm lit my office like she were another lamp in it, that I’d softly repeat to myself, little ladle. Little ladle.
Technically, this one doesn’t belong on the list because it’s not a real word actually. (Cue visions of the elementary school me, chanting dorkily that “Ain’t ain’t a word so I ain’t gonna use it.”) But it should be, Lily, and its meaning is obvious: the study of those soapy floating beauties. And it sounds like what it says. It bounces off the tongue and pops.
This is where being a poet comes into play: I’m all for new coinages, neologisms and even a portmanteau or two. I remember being so disappointed when I’d learned the truth behind a linguistic myth. The story went that the Inuit people living in Alaska, because they encountered it so frequently and in so many variations, had over a hundred words for snow.
The truth is a bit more complicated (as to what makes a word or what a root), but I won’t forget wondering what kind of single concept in my life would be so important, I would need a hundred words just to describe it. In case you’re wondering, here’s my favorite, absolutely satiric, list by Phil James of the fake words for snow. The best to me is tlarin:
“snow that can be sculpted into the delicate corsages Eskimo girls pin to their whale parkas at prom time.”
5) Dalai Lama
I know this is a title. I know it’s weird and culturally insensitive to picture a sacred monk of Tibetan Buddhism as a South American camelid. I can’t help it. Whenever I read or hear the expression, I immediately see a stuffed (i.e. “dolly”) version of this image:
Luckily, the current DL, Tenzin Gyatso, seems like a pretty chill Buddhist. (Is there any other kind?) Even though I giggle a little (ladle) when I hear his title, I still stand as if someone put a steel rod in my spine and listen when he says things like this:
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
That, little Lily, is wisdom.
6) C’est une affiche.
Okay, so it’s not just a word or an expression, but an entire sentence. But it’s one of the few I remember from high school French. It means, simply, boringly enough, “This is a poster.” But it’s pronounced, much to my childish delight, like an entirely different sentence in English, albeit with a French accent.
Say Tuna Fish, Lily. Or, more accurately, Say Tuna Feesh.
7) & 8) Jambalaya / Manifesto
For as long as I’ve been alive, these two words have been my top favorites. Once upon a time, many moons ago, I was writing a manuscript of poems about food, foodies, bodies, and weight, a project I largely abandoned when I found the real topic of my grad school thesis: silence in domestically violent families, and how that impacts child witnesses. But I had sworn, before I found that subject matter, that my first book would be titled after my two first favorite words: The Jambalaya Manifesto.
It makes more sense than it seems initially, even if the book isn’t about Creole cuisine. By denotation, jambalaya is also used to refer to “a mixture of diverse elements.” A manifesto is “a written statement that describes the policies, goals, and opinions of a person or group.” Thus, a jambalaya manifesto would be a written statement describing the opinions of a person about a mixture of diverse elements.
One of these days, Lily, I may release just such a collection. For now, I think these letters serve the same purpose. And I can’t wait to see if we share any favorite words in your future collection. [And readers, if you have your own favorites, share them with Lily and me in the comments to expand our minds and our diction!]
- By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2357292
- By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble). CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33321275
- By Johann “nojhan” Dréo – IMG_1418, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3434729