"Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for
children to be always and forever explaining things to them."
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
So you think your children don't listen to you, never hear a word you say?
Don't bet on it. Judging by the following examples, most of us have a
precocious child or two on our hands, or a bunch of ordinary kids with
precocious streaks down their inquisitive backs.
Starting with a couple whiz kids of my own, let me tell you what happened
last Mother's Day when my granddaughter realized she had forgotten a card
for her mother.
"That's OK, honey. We'll just stop in this drug store."
"Drug store! Grandma, do you take drugs?"
Then followed a hairy explanation about the difference between good drugs
and bad drugs, which I hope got through. (Thanks, Columbia County Schools,
for teaching our children about bad drugs at such an early age.)
Going back a generation: Before our family exchanged civilian life for the
military, we lived in East Millinocket, Maine. Years later, after living in
West Berlin, Germany, we made plans to visit our old hometown.
"But we can't go there," said one of our sons. "East Millinocket isn't
free." We got a lot of mileage out of that explanation, comparing freedom in
America with life under communism while Berlin was still a divided city.
Meanwhile, outside the family loop, Nicole, an observant 11-year-old,
recently stunned me with the following:
"There's something I don't understand. If vice means something bad that
you're not supposed to do, why do we have a vice president?"
Again, I used the two-meaning approach, though I didn't have the heart to
tell her sometimes our second (and first) in political command really is
synonymous with a bad thing they weren't supposed to do.
But, truth be known, I wasn't at all sure why we use this same word in such
completely different ways. So later, armed with an arsenal of books on word
meanings and a thesaurus or two, I decided to find out. Surprisingly, every
source went to great lengths to explain one of the meanings while totally
ignoring the other.
My computer thesaurus listed: associate, subordinate, secondary and junior,
but not a hint about improper behavior. Yet Rodale's "Synonym Finder" said
nothing at all about junior, and much about fault, defect, shortcoming,
besetting sin and indulgence in degrading practices.
I was certain my modern American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
would be less partial, but a careful reading of the six definitions they
provide proved otherwise. The only difference in the six was in the degree
of the wicked, evil, flawed, imperfect, immoral or degrading thing no one,
not even a vice president I presume, is supposed to do.
None of my wordbooks, however, told me how "junior" got his name - until I
read on in the dictionary's V-section and stumbled onto a possible
explanation. Right there between "vicereine" and "viceroyalty," was the word
"viceroy," with, wouldn't you know it, two different meanings. Though I'd
heard the word before, I didn't know a viceroy can either be a butterfly
similar to but smaller than a monarch, or - voila! - "A man who governs a
country, province, or colony as the representative of a sovereign."
Unless some wordsmith proves my conclusion wrong, I'm going to assume we
descendants of English-speaking forbears have simply tacked on an
abbreviated form of "viceroy" to the less-than-sovereign office we wish to
define. And lest the feminists should object to an exclusively male
designation, a "vicereine," which, you may remember, precedes viceroy, is
either the wife of a viceroy, or a woman who is the governor or
representative of a sovereign.
The moral of this good-drug, good-East, good-vice story is, never forget
that children take what you say literally, with the possible exception of,
"It's time for bed, now!" So, go easy on the figurative - "it's a rat race
you're pulling my leg Dad's tied up at the office," etc. - and say what you
Oh, dear. I should have taken my own advice. As I was clearing my throat the
other day, and my 5-year-old granddaughter asked why I kept making "that
noise," I said the obvious: "Because I have a frog in my throat."
Does anyone know where I can find a double meaning for frog?
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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