We have made thee with freedom of choice so thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.
- Giovanni Mirandola
One of my favorite pastimes is learning the origin of words. As a low-level student of German, French and a smattering of tourist Turkish, Im always looking for that connection between words my high school Latin teacher convinced us was the reason everyone should study her subject. How passionately Mrs. Kelliher believed that veni, vidi, vici stuff she made us memorize. By knowing Latin you will always be able to figure out what an unfamiliar word means, she intoned.
Well, Mrs. Kelliher was right - sort of. I did figure out that venture and advent came from veni (I came), victory was a derivative of vici (I conquered), and more recently that video must have come from vidi (I saw), the middle word in Caesars famous speech. But she cant imagine the language explosion thats taken place since her words rang ex cathedra to an entranced student in the rear left corner of the room. Shed be amazed to learn that the new edition of Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary contains 4,500,000 more words than there were in the 3rd edition we used back when we shared a classroom.
Ive tried to keep up - honest. I adjusted when my son became a mess specialist in the Navy. At first I thought they must have inspected his room before they swore him in, but then I learned that the use of the word mess as disorderly is the newer meaning of the word. Formerly it referred to meals prepared in one place and sent to another, and stemmed from the Latin word, missus, meaning to send, as in message. So, assigning my son to the kitchen and, incidentally, making him a fine chef at the same time, was fine with both of us, even if I did have to keep reminding myself he was not on perpetual KP.
Ive also struggled to become with it, as my once embarrassed children, and now grandchildren, lose no opportunity to remind me, especially when it comes to that modern designation, politically correct. For example, Im really trying to replace any word with a man in it to something person, and substituting even the slightest negative like short with the presumably kinder phrase, vertically challenged. But when politically or whateverly correct words are used to camouflage - or deliberately alter - what everyone knows is the real meaning of a word, Im afraid Ill just have to remain without it or perpetually non-p.c.
Case in point:
Not long ago I heard an interview on some program about the latest trend in home decorating, which the guest called, shabby-chic.
I almost spilled my tea on my pre-abused couch, the brazen ladys term for any old item you cant afford to replace. I gasped again when she suggested we could make our new furniture look antique by scratching it with a nail for that old-world feel.
But the lady was no slouch; it appears she took Latin, too. A little more linguistic research and I learned the root meaning of the word, graffiti, and relative words graph and graphite, meant the scratching of pottery before it was fired to give it that old-world feel. (Caution: the relic you just bought at that estate auction may have come from the shabby-chic generation, too.)
Now I have heard of early marriage style and the eclectic family collection - everyone elses cast-offs - and Ive settled happily for both myself. But shabby-chic still sounds like that other oxymoron, pretty awful, to me. Somehow finally having the resources to buy something new and pretty and then committing graffiti on it would be like wiping tar on a white satin dress.
But why go to all that trouble? My advice for those who want that pre-abused, old-world, shabby-chic feel is to shop at a flea market or, like most of us, keep what you already have. Or you could follow the decorating example of the father of seven who said, Instead of furniture, we got children.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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