Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Word Problems

When I was a kid I used to wonder who the first person was to come up with a word for something and why everyone else agreed to call it by that name. I imagined these scenes where Man 1 pointed to a dog and said “dog” (not in English, of course, but considering I think in English, I just went with it) and everyone around him shrugged and was all, Okay, fine. We’ll call it a dog. Now can we focus on getting out of the way of this stampede of mastodons? (Once again, the influence of the Flinstones on my young brain shows itself.)

But what, I wondered, if Man 1 had actually been pointing at the tree the animal was relieving itself on when he said “dog” and not the animal itself? And in all the confusion of the whole mastodon stampede, the other folks had simply taken note of the wrong thing? Now, thousands of years later, we’re calling dogs, dogs, when really trees were supposed to be dogs.

Or what if Man 1 had been pointing at the dog, so the people around him were correct in their word usage, but Man 6 (the poor guy bringing up the rear of the mastodon-fleeing group) had seen the animal first and called it a “rock,” but the others couldn’t hear him over the stampede? After making their way to safety, Man 6 realizes the animal followed them and says, “Hey, it’s the rock!” and everyone else (feeling all arrogant because they managed not to get crushed) snorts derisively, whispering amongst themselves, “What an idiot. He doesn’t even know it’s a dog.” And Man 6 gets all flustered and tries to save face, “No, of course that’s a dog. I was talking about the little thing over there on the ground. That’s the rock. Obvi.”

Given that this was the weird mess going on in my head, I constantly pondered if other people were thinking about the same thing that I was. After doing a little informal survey, I found that the vast majority were…..not. I lost track of the number of times friends looked at me strangely when I asked if they every thought that maybe their beloved pet was supposed to be called a tree, or their parents’ garden was actually meant to be referred to as a forest. Their response would almost invariably be, “It’s not a forest. It’s a garden. Forests have lots of trees.” And I’d say, “Yeah. But what if it was supposed to be that forests are just flowers and gardens have lots of trees? And people just got mixed up.”

And then they’d walk away.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was probably crazy. At that point I was still basing this belief off the assumption that if the majority felt one way, then that was the sane path. Then, wonder of wonders, I made a fantastic discovery. When it came to word origins my dad thought about the same things I did! Albeit with less Flinstones involvement. Probably.

I was talking to my mom about it one day and she told me that she’d had similar conversations with my dad. So, I naturally went off, running through the house, screaming like a banshee, until I found my father. I explained the whole dog/tree/rock conundrum and not once did that let-me-get-away-from-this-crazy-person look that I’d seen on so many of friends cross his face. He just sat down and told me that he often thought about the same kind of thing.

After that, I stopped worrying that I was crazy and just focused on my queries into word origins.

I mean, I knew I probably was. Crazy, that is. But, at least I came by it honestly.

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