It may come as a bit of a shock to hear this factoid, but I was a precocious child.
Not Shirley-Temple-cutesy-singy-dancey-acty-ringletty level precocious, but more of an elevated-vocabulary-style precocious.
(I’ve just realized how many times I have typed the word ‘precocious’ – don’t stop me now – I’m so close to a personal best)
I should be forthcoming in telling you that, due to my insatiable curiousity, while I learned a bunch of new words al-l-l-l-ll the time, there were many instances when I just learned them because the novelty of the sounds tickled my brain; the more syllables the better. (favourite 5-year-old me word: antidisestablishtarianism).
I really had no fucking clue what I was on about a large majority of my young life. But I was a glorious party trick for my parents to trot out when guests were over.
What I did have going for me at the time – and truthfully into the present day – was the ability to observe how these mystery words landed. The reactions to these were my learning ground. Were people shocked (if, for example, I used the word ‘asshole’) ? Were they amazed (if, for example, I peppered my conversations with the word ‘germane’)? Did adults make a stink face (if, for example, I used the word ‘chlamydia’ in a completely inappropriate context)?
There was more than a fair share of stink face. (I watched a lot of Marcus Welby, MD, and freely dabbled in medical jargon for a time.)
The facial expressions, the energy emitted, the reactions, were teaching tools into learning the power of the spoken word, and how to also read social cues. I really had no idea how people interacted ‘normally’. Trial and error, people. Trial and error.
I think I had heard once that ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ This was a fascinating concept to me. Me, a child with a very limited amount of power. Once I got my mom to explain to me what that arcane adage was about, I was curious enough to test out that theory.
How, exactly, did I learn such a wide array of words, you ask?
Well. I watched A LOT of tv. Like a shit ton of tv. I do believe I might have been Patient Zero in the ‘Too Much Television is Bad for Kids” studies of the early 70’s. But, yet. I turned out ok. Right?
And my viewing wasn’t limited to kid’s shows. Oh, no. Gumby & Pokey was for amateurs, my friends. The Flintstones was for the plebian pre-pubescent masses. Those innocuous works of kiddy junk are what I watched when my parents were looking. I watched a huge variety of adult-themed shows and movies when they weren’t looking. Which was often. I had a tv (aka babysitter/older sibling) in my room from wa-a-a-a-y back in the day.
I started reading early. Left to my own devices, I would read anything and everything. Cereal boxes. Reference books. Silver Screen magazines at my mom’s hairdresser. Reader’s Digests in the doctor’s office.
Once I was introduced to our public library, forget about it. I burned through those books as fast as I could.
One of my favourite sources of lexicon-builders *GUILTY PLEASURE ALERT* , though, were Archie comics. The reason I liked them was three-fold:
1. My mom believed that they were age-appropriate, so I could convince her into buying me an “Archie’s Double Digest” at the grocery store once a month,
2. I was endlessly intrigued by the love triangle betwixt Archie, Veronica, and Betty. I lived in hope that dumbass Archie would come to his senses and realize what a manipulative bitch Veronica was, and
3. The Lodge family was fascinating to me. Here was a family model completely foreign to my own, and their luxe lifestyle made me begin to have very early existential questions regarding my middle/lower income life.
One of the words that I learned was from that pulpy sage, dear old Veronica Lodge. The word was, I was sure, a colloquial one; it felt a little oldy-timey. It was one I was unclear of the context of, and one I couldn’t use on my contemporaries.
I knew trying it out on an adult was the only way to go. It was just a matter of waiting for what I deemed would be exactly the right time and situation. What could possibly happen? Amazement? Shock? Stink Face? No big. I was aware and used to these.
What I hadn’t anticipated was the as-of-yet-never-encountered fourth type of reaction – Burning Hot Fury.
Which is exactly the reaction I got when I was running errands with my dad, just before dinner, and I begged him to buy an ice cream cone for me and my friend who had tagged along. Did I mention it was just before dinner? Do you remember what I told you earlier about being middle/lower class. No money, mo problems.
When he emphatically said no, he would not buy us ice cream this close to dinnertime, I KNEW in my bones it was go time. Now was the time to try out the Tao of Veronica. Here was the adult to try it on (a man, may I add, whose reactions always fell into the ‘Amazed’ category). I tested the waters of his refusal by replying,
“Are you saying ‘no’ to buying us ice cream because you’re a …tightwad?”
Cue father: Burning Hot Fury.
Cue daughter: Bottomless Pit of Shame. (With a little befuddlement thrown in)(Clearly that was not the proper timing)(Trial and error, people)(Trial and error)
On the tension-laden truck ride home, my father silently fumed and I silently puzzled as to how it had all gone so wrong.
And yet, I wondered how I could smooth things over. How we could swing things back into the “Amazed” realm. Perhaps I could I try peppering our dinner conversation with a new phrase gleaned from ‘ Medical Center’ the night before:
Cue Stink Face.
Everything was not Archie.