You Should Never Be At a Loss For Words
(Great words like Opossum and Lackadaisical)
by H. Jerome Chapman
“Sticks and Stones” is an English language children’s rhyme. It is intended to persuade the child victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt, to refrain from physical retaliation, and to remain calm and good-natured. It is reported to have appeared in The Christian Recorder of March 1862, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church where it is presented as an “old adage” in this form:
Sticks and stones will break my bones But words will never harm me.
The phrase also appeared in 1872, where it is presented as advice in Tappy’s Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature, by Mrs. George Cupples. The version used in that work runs:
Sticks and stones may break my bones But names will never hurt me.
This sentiment is reflected in/reflects the common law of civil assault, which holds that mere name-calling does not give rise to a cause of action, while putting someone in fear of physical violence does. (Source: Wikipedia)
While this may be good advice and may result in less fist fights on the playground, it hardly removes the fact that words DO HURT and sometimes the hurt lasts for a long time, if not forever. You may carry the scars of a verbal encounter with someone in your life that have not gone away for years. Things you wish you could “take back”. Things they can’t or won’t “take back”.
Have you ever been at a loss for words? We’ve all had that situation where we are trying to make a point, impress someone, or put someone down and we don’t think of that “right thing” to say until later. But we are surrounded by words. The Oxford Dictionary has 171,476 “in use” English Language words and 47,176 words listed as “obsolete”.
With all those words, have you ever wondered where they came from? Who spoke the first word? What was the first word? And, you talk about not being able to think of anything to say…well……think of that first “conversation”.
Until the first word, it had been just “grunts”, I suppose. One grunt for yes, two grunts for no. Other inferences were probably made by a series of grunts. For example: “Why are you so late coming in from hunting?” “The rabbit is getting cold.” That might have sounded like “Ummph Ummph Ummmmph Ummpa Ummpa.” The response would have been, “Why don’t you get off my back?” “Grrrrrrr Grr Grr Grrrrrrr.”
I think “power point” presentations came next. Someone found they could draw pictures on the cave walls and boulders that depicted much of their day to day life. They soon had pictures of most of the animals, streams, fruit and plants on the walls. Every morning, they would all gather around the fire and the person in “power” would “point” at a picture on the wall to let the group know what was on the agenda (menu) for that day. Then he (or she) would walk over to a pile of rocks, pick one or two up and hand the members of the group their ammunition for that day.
But somewhere for the first time someone said “Cat”. “Rock”. “Dog”. “Cook”. “Eat”. And the other person must have had to be trained to understand what those “words” meant. Since there were no “words” they could not call a committee meeting to decide if those words were acceptable for their usage. We won’t even get into how words are spelled. Today’s texting, Emails, and Twittering would seem to suggest that many words have letters that are not useful at all. U can do wthout thm, it seems.
One afternoon, I saw this young fellow who had just come from kindergarten. He said that he had just learned his ABC’s and began to recite them to me: “A, B, C, D, E, F, M, O, R, S, T, W, And Z”, he said with a big smile. I said that I thought he had done a great job but that he may have left out a few letters. He replied, “I know that, but they really are not important.” Even at 5 years old he could see the over use of letters. U cn get by wthout som.
There was the first person that learned to articulate “Cat”. Then, probably pointed to the “cat” and said “cat”. The other person cocked their head to one side and shrugged as if to answer, “What?” (Even though they did not yet have that word in use). The first person says again, “Cat”. “Cat”. “Cat”. Finally, the second person grunts one time for “yes” and then practices till they can also say “cat”. They shake hands and now they can communicate the next time either of them sees a cat. But not about much else.
Once they learned that it was helpful to be able to speak out a name of an animal it became much easier to keep someone from being eaten by the tiger crouched on a big rock when they were going by. Remember, until that time, they could only grunt a warning and it was often difficult to determine between a good grunt and a bad grunt, depending on the mood of the person doing the grunting, until after the person was eaten by the “cat”. Now, they could jump up and down, point and yell “cat”. A clear improvement.
In time, we can see that agreement had to be reached between the parties on every single word. How many years it took to get to enough words to have a conversation, I don’t know.
Think of this. They learned “Cat”. They learned “Dog”. They learned other words useful to their daily lives. Then, one day, someone came up with “if”, “and”, and “but”. People accepted their usage and sentences could be put together. Like “Eat cat and dog”.
I wonder who first used a word like optimistic, preponderance, lackadaisical, oxymoron, ponder. You could go on and on. Imagine when the opossum was given a name. You can see the opossum creeping by the camp. One person looked at another and asked,
“What is that stupid looking animal”.
The other replies, “Let’s call it a possum.”
The other replies, “A what?”
“Possum”, the first one retorts.
“Oh, possum. Now I got it.”
Then the other one says, “Hey, O.K. We can call it Opossum if you want.”
The acoustics being what they were in a cave, you see. It was nice when there were fewer people from whom agreement was required.
Now we have Webster’s and Oxford dictionaries to let us know there are new words, words we shouldn’t use any more, and what they mean. We don’t get a chance to agree or disagree with their usage. And don’t you dare use any “discontinued” words.
And, you should never ever get in a position where you are at a “loss for words”. If you are, just invent one. Humans have been doing it for centuries! Who’s to say you can’t? But, remember that once spoken, they may last forever for good or ill.