December 16, 2017

Old Friendships, Wordships – How We Met Them

Guest Post

Language makes us human. Many of us remember the exact moment when we first encountered a new, unfamiliar word. Over time, these bits of vocabulary became old friends. Such moments can occur for many reasons, such as a sentimental high school moment with a vocabulary card preparing for the SATs. This blog includes three vocabulary moments. The first word arrived as an unexpected guidepost for Cheryl Wilder’s career. The second taught Ellen MacMillan something about judging people. The third from your host, Bill Finger, reminds us how humor and grace can help heal humiliation.

Cheryl WilderCheryl Wilder, a writer and poet, shares her work at

I had the great fortune to work for an architect during the last years of his career. Part of my job was to research the history of architecture. My focus was on architectural space and not the material or engineering that made it all possible. The other part of my job was to find new language that helped define the spaces in which we live.

During this time, I began a low-residency graduate program in poetry, researching architecture by day and studying poems by night. Quickly, architecture and poetry intertwined, leading me to new sources that used both poetic and architectural language. The pinnacle to this research appeared in the essay, “Architecture and the Poetry of Space,” by philosopher Louis Hammer: “Every building is a palimpsest on which are written countless poems of space.”

“Palimpsest,” I said it to myself over and over, allowing it to roll off my tongue: palim – sest, accenting “palim” and keeping the second “p” silent.

The word wasn’t altogether new, probably read it in some undergraduate history class, yet I didn’t know what it meant. I reread the sentence and guessed at the meaning before lifting to turn pages in the OED. From Greek, palimpsest means scraped again or again to rub smooth; a parchment whence writing has been erased; paper, parchment, or other writing-material prepared for writing on and wiping out again, like a slate.

Whatever I thought it could mean didn’t compare to the eye-opening definition, especially in the context it was written. Buildings. Poems. Space. Palimpsest, the word that set a foundation for all my work thereafter.

QuotidienEllen MacMillan, worked in communications job, including for the North Carolina Hospital Association

When my friend sent me a published article written by a mutual friend, the word jumped out at me: quotidian! Who would use a word like that? A word I didn’t know. Was she showing off? I was so put off by her note that I judged her as being arrogant, a show off. I was in the communications business and knew it was important to be clear with a reader. Then I looked the word up. Then I began to notice it being used in more and more places. Gradually, I accepted that maybe the author wasn’t showing off. Perhaps quotidian was quotidian for her. I still don’t use quotidian every day, but I’ve decided I shouldn’t be so arrogant about another’s use of a word.

Bill Finger. In my 50s, I managed publications for a global public health research project on youth HIV and reproductive health. I remember well the moment I learned a new word, which I apparently should have known long before. “Now in the penultimate paragraph,” the supervisor of our project at the U.S. Agency for International Development said on the phone. She always talked fast giving these edits to me on publications that I edited and sometimes wrote, usually with some substantive nuance that I needed to follow. I looked for the phrase she was reading in the final paragraph but couldn’t find the right spot.

“Where are you again?”

“In the penultimate graph.” And she started her rapid-fire comments again. I still couldn’t find it.

“How does the sentence begin?” I interrupted. Finally, after she used penultimate one or two more times, and told me the first few words of the paragraph again, I realized she was in the next to last paragraph. By then, she surely had realized that I did not know the word penultimate. She admired my work in general, and fortunately never embarrassed me by asking why I didn’t know that word. We never discussed it. I love that word now and learned from that phone call that relying on what I think a word means by sound isn’t always the right answer. After all, without thinking about prefixes or Latin, penultimate sounds a lot like the ultimate.