Learning new words, discovering culture, broadening one’s horizons of experience — it’s all on a continuum. The purpose of language from the beginning of history was to interpret our observations of the world and to help us remember them. Words have the power to evoke memories just as an odor or a taste can. The flip side of this, in my experience, is that sometimes memories can latch onto words. When I think about certain words, I can’t help but think about some piece of culture — a movie, show, song, book, poem, or game — in which I encountered them. We add nuance to the definitions of words based on our history with them, and the emotions bound up in a cultural artifact can be transferred to a word that I associate with that artifact. This can make me hesitant to use certain words, and it can color my understanding of them, sometimes in unhelpful ways. There are aspects of childhood we have to try and shake off when we become adults, and this might be one of them.
On the other hand, I know there are positive lessons to be gleaned from this. Culture is powerful, and one very basic and positive use of this power is the teaching of new words. The more words you know, the bigger the world becomes. It’s just a byproduct when you find that you can’t think of a word you’ve learned without thinking of the source. It’s like that movie, that book, that song is saying to your mind, “Don’t forget me! I taught you something.” That’s how memory works: it makes associations, it puts things in compartments. Over time, those compartments can expand. A word once held hostage to a particular experience can be seen in multiple contexts, robust and free. But sometimes the original memory is powerful enough to endure.
Therefore, here are ten words that have clear ties to specific artifacts in my mind. These are the rules: (1) obviously, the word can’t have been invented by the author, because no one thinks of “chortle” without thinking of Lewis Carroll, that’s too obvious (2) I’m using words that I know I’ve seen in other contexts, because that reveals the tie to the “original” source; to put it another way, the words I’ve chosen are fairly common but not especially so, which means they stand out but I know I’ve seen them in more than one place (3) my first encounters with these words came at all points of my childhood, one as recently as six years ago, but I discovered most of them during the nebulous period of the 1990’s with my malleable prepubescent brain; I think that’s the primary period of life when this phenomenon occurs, whereas now, I’m consuming far too much culture for any one artifact to stand out in quite the same way.
Needless to say, this is all very anecdotal. I have no idea what I’m talking about beyond sharing what I’ve experienced. So let’s get to that, shall we?
(Definitions taken from Dictionary.com)
Churl [churl] (noun) 1. a rude, boorish, or surly person. 4. English History: a freeman of the lowest rank.
- Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 1: first published in 1609, first read January 1, 2007.
- I know what you’re thinking. Shakespeare invented countless words and phrases that have become common in English, so, how original of me. But I was familiar with many of those words and phrases before I ever read the plays. That’s how ingrained they’ve become in the Western mind. “Churl,” on the other hand, was a word I don’t think I’d ever seen before the first day of my yearlong quest to read the complete works. It was the first word I learned on that delightful journey.
Diadem [DAHY-uh-dem] (noun) a crown.
- Edward Perronet, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” first published in 1779, first sung in the 1990’s.
- I know I’ve seen the word somewhere other than the first verse of this hymn, but it might be the least common word I’ve chosen. Music is always a great aid to memory, so you’d think I’d be able to come up with more examples like this. Fiona Apple taught me the word “stentorian,” but I’m not sure I’ve seen that word anywhere else, so I didn’t include it.
Dumbwaiter [DUHM-wey-ter] (noun) a small elevator, manually or electrically operated, consisting typically of a box with shelves, used in apartment houses, restaurants, and large private dwellings for moving dishes, food, garbage, etc., between floors.
- Goosebumps, “The Headless Ghost,” broadcast September 21, 1996.
- I don’t really remember anything else about this episode, or any other Goosebumps story for that matter, but of course it was spooky, which has made me slightly creeped out about the idea of a dumbwaiter. Thanks a lot, Fox Kids! I can’t be an aristocrat now.
Hybrid [HAHY-brid] (noun) the offspring of two animals or plants of different breeds, varieties, species, or genera, especially as produced through human manipulation for specific genetic characteristics.
- Frank Peretti, The Veritas Project Book 1, Hangman’s Curse, first published in 2001.
- Words with the letter “y” in them have a tendency to stand out. It’s a cool-looking letter to have in the middle of your word. Peretti taught me a little bit of science with this book.
Innuendo [in-yoo-EN-doh] (noun) an indirect intimation about a person or thing, especially of a disparaging or a derogatory nature.
- TV listings in local paper, movie capsules: first read in the 1990’s.
- That’s right: as in “sexual innuendo.” Such a sinuous word naturally intrigued me rather than warning me away, but back then I did a lot more reading about movies than watching them anyway. It was my first experience with the critical evaluation of films, and with star ratings.
Insurrection [in-suh-REK-shuhn] (noun) an act or instance of rising in revolt, rebellion, or resistance against civil authority or an established government.
- Star Trek: Insurrection, released December 11, 1998.
- It made me think of “resurrection” back then, and of course the idea of “rising” is part of both words’ etymologies. For some reason, the worst Star Trek movies typically were given the coolest titles. Such a waste.
Morgue [mawrg] (noun) a place in which bodies are kept, especially the bodies of victims of violence or accidents, pending identification or burial.
- Men in Black, released July 2, 1997.
- I was barely ten years old when I first saw this movie, and some of the morbid humor was completely new to me. This word is used enough times in the movie for it to stick out in the memory. (I also learned a couple new obscenities from this movie, so yay!)
Prism [PRIZ-uhm] (noun) Optics: a transparent solid body, often having triangular bases, used for dispersing light into a spectrum or for reflecting rays of light.
- Pollyanna, released in 1960, date of first viewing unknown, but likely during the 90’s.
- I can’t think of the concept, or of the baubles themselves, without thinking of the scene from the movie in which we are taught not to be frightened of weird old recluses. Learning a little about optics is just the icing on the cake.
Repugnant [ri-PUHG-nuhnt] (adjective) distasteful, objectionable, or offensive: a repugnant smell.
- Pinky and the Brain, “TV or Not TV,” broadcast November 19, 1995.
- The two TV episodes on my list are the only things I haven’t revisited since the first time I saw them, so like the Goosebumps episode, I don’t remember anything about this one except the repeated use of the word “repugnant.” Again, the repeating, along with the distinctiveness of Brain’s voice, made it memorable. I see that at least some episodes of this show are on YouTube now, so I’ll have to make time for that at some point.
Saffron [SAF-ruhn] (noun) 1. also called “vegetable gold,” a crocus, Crocus sativus, having showy purple flowers. 2. an orange-colored condiment consisting of its dried stigmas, used to color and flavor foods. 3. Also, “saffron yellow,” yellow-orange.
- Pokémon: Blue Version, released in 1998.
- This video game taught me a handful of words that describe colors. I could have gone with viridian, cerulean, vermilion, celadon, or cinnabar, but Saffron City is my favorite part of the game, by far. Between the assault on Team Rocket in the labyrinthine Silph Co. skyscraper, Copycat’s house, the Fighting Dojo and the Psychic Gym, there are terrific opportunities to strengthen one’s team, and it’s all very entertaining. As for the word itself, though, and many of the other colorful words in the game, I had to look up the definitions to know what color they represented. To me, they’re names of cities.