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Food for Thought

Many years ago, when my husband first opened an office in Iowa City, he furnished it as economically as possible with furnishings from a secondhand store. He found a nice wooden desk for his inner office, and some shelving. A set of heavy oak dining room chairs furnished the waiting room, and the walls had ample space for a number of my oil paintings– most of which were unframed but still looked better than bare walls.
One of his first clients happened to be a retired carpenter from my husband’s hometown and his wife who still operated a beauty shop in their home. When the couple made their first visit to get their taxes prepared, the wife was impressed with my paintings.
At least, I think that was what she meant when she told me, “I didn’t know you were an artist. When I saw all your paintings in the office and he said that you did them, I was appalled.”
The only definition of the word “appalled” that I was aware of was “shocked by something dreadful.” I gave her a weak smile and a murmured thank-you and resolved to consult my dictionary to see if there was some other definition of the word that meant “impressed or amazed”– even her claiming to have been merely surprised would have been better than being appalled. But, appalled means appalled, and not much else. I decided to assume she didn’t know what the word meant, and that she liked my paintings or she wouldn’t have gushed so enthusiastically.
Another friend of mine once said that he had been “repelling on a mountain,” which I strongly doubted, as he was a nice guy and I couldn’t imagine him being disgusting– on a mountain or anywhere else. I was pretty sure he had meant to say “rappelling,” as he was the athletic type and I knew he had, at one time, been a member of the Iowa Mountaineers. Well, there are other definitions of the word “repelling” and maybe he had meant that he had been fending off some threat of danger, but he wrote about the experience later and mentioned ropes and crampons, so I had to concede that he simply didn’t use the right word. This was the same friend who couldn’t understand why his computer insisted that the word for military forces on horseback should be capitalized. I didn’t either, my computer didn’t demand that I spell “cavalry” with a capital C. Until I reread his letter and realized he’d typed Calvary, the place where Christ was crucified, which is always capitalized. My dictionary does not insist on the capital C in the case where the word is meant to indicate any time of great suffering, but not the Crucifixion that it normally implies, so I guess my friend and his spell checker were both wrong.
Some of the little glitches I notice in people’s use– or misuse– of our language are the result of childhood errors in understanding or pronunciation. Such as the guy who could never pronounce the word “aluminum” correctly, so naturally, he can’t spell it right either and it comes out “alunium” and his spell checker won’t accept that, so he ends up writing “metal” or “light-weight metal” instead. He has trouble with the name of that famous Strauss composition, as well, and still insists that it is “The Blue Daniel Waltz.” For some reason, several people I’ve known (not all of them children) have had trouble with the word “spaghetti” and it comes out as “pasghetti.” I’ve never understood why these people can pronounce other sp words with no problem– ”speak, space, spice, spark,” and many more roll fluently off their tongues, but they still eat pasghetti and meat balls in Italian restaurants. And, to this day, my sister still calls those delectable woodland fungi “mushroons.”
Then there are always those childhood mispronunciations that we mothers cherish and write in the baby books because they are so charming. The little boy who, once potty-trained and graduated to undergarments “just like Daddy’s” shows off his “wonder-wear” for the benefit of his admiring grandparents. There’s the pincushion that becomes a “cush-pushin” and immediately takes on an entirely different character as the result of the renaming. Treated to the same children’s magic, an ordinary windowsill, enjoys a whole new identity as a “cinderwell.” Maybe part of the magic is the familiarity of the word “cinder,” as in Cinderella, a character that few children ever connect with the idea that she spent a good deal of time sweeping the ashes from the fireplaces at the behest of her stepmother. Because of that much-loved fairytale, the word “cinder” is transformed from the lowly waste material left after a fire into something having to do with princes, golden coaches, and fairy godmothers. Sometimes, it seems, the wrong word can say more than the intended one.