Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Warm and Wordy Welcome from a Playful Seattle Sign

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Warm and Wordy Welcome from a Playful Seattle Sign

Article excerpt

A SIMPLE post, about five feet tall, held the wooden sign. At the top was painted WORD OF THE WEEK. Below this, a strip of white paper had been tacked. On it, someone had printed with a marker in a fresh, spontaneous style: tergiversate. That was all. One could ignore or enjoy it.

The sign stood between curb and sidewalk at the corner of a residential block in Wallingford, a Seattle community through which I was traveling by bus in search of a new apartment. The words were large enough to read easily as we passed.

Tergiversate. I quickly wrote it down. I'd look it up when I got home. Was this a game someone offered for neighborhood amusement? What fun! It might be a friendly place in which to settle.

Tergiversate. Writing to a Manhattan friend who is a college professor of children's literature and an accomplished poet, I included it. "Tergiversate," she quickly wrote back. It was the first word in her letter and seemed to pop off the page like a Fourth of July sparkler punctuating the sky. Send more Seattle big words, she urged. Her enthusiasm eased a certain uneasiness about myself when I became so excited about a word game.

Tergiversate had a life, an energy, like the word Ocracoke, which I once heard children chanting outside my window as they marched around their yard. "Oc-ra-coke, Oc-ra-coke." We lived in New York state; Ocracoke was a town in North Carolina. Where had they heard about it? Wherever, they liked the sound so much they made it the capital of their play.

I tried to separate enjoyment of the Seattle word game from my judgment about the neighborhood as a possible place to live.

What if I moved there, only to find the sign had disappeared? Would it change my view of the community?

Yes! To me, that sign radiated warmth and welcome.

I rode past it a week or so later. The new word: satyagraha. After that: bedizen. Did bedizen have something to do with feeling bedazzled? Other star words were: gallimaufry, deliquesce, and snollygoster.

Each time I acquired a new mysterious word, I rushed home to check the exact meanings and origin. Did my keen interest indicate a past language deprivation? I wondered. I'd written many television and radio programs, including a series for the very young. Simple words were often best in broadcasting, and could be eloquent, as in the late Joe Raposo's lyric: "Sing sing a song sing out loud sing out strong Almost every word in that moving song was one syllable.

For a long while I had considered most big words to be cumbersome, like ornate furniture. Stuffy. There were, of course, exceptions with lilting fluidity like tintinnabulation, onomatopoeia, and serendipity. And longer words did have a presence, weight, shape; you could almost hold one in your hand, slip it into a pocket, later offer it to a friend - yet still keep it. …

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