I love words. I always have. The work of figuring out what a word means and where it came from and then following the delightful path of connecting a word with another, and another – it’s just a wonderful pastime. When I was in college, a bookstore at the mall was selling the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, as a massive probably 8 pound book for $19.95. I have it on my bookshelf today. One of the more fascinating books I have read over the last twenty years was called The Professor and the Madman, the true story of the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, at that time in the mid-1800s, it was a 12-volume set of nearly 600,000 words. Today, the set is actually twenty volumes, and hundreds of thousands more words. It’s like sitting snuggled up on a huge overstuffed chair, eating chocolates and reading your favorite book. Just a nice thing.
My voyage into Latin and Greek and Italian and Spanish and a splash of Romanian in college only whetted my appetite for words, and how we can communicate with each other, either by writing or face-to-face. Words do matter, and the subtly of their meanings and use often make all the difference in the world.
So, every Sunday, Cheri and I will take copies of the LA Times crossword puzzle found in our paper or online, and spend some time going through the clues, and discovering new insights about words. The best puzzles are in between the ones that are too easy, and the game is over too soon, and those exercises that simply seem to be constructed to frustrate, with little or no way to really discover what the word might be. After we finish with the puzzle, of course, then we have to solve the Cryptoquip, figuring out which letters stand for which other ones that make sensible words. You can tell at our house that it’s a laugh a minute…
This morning, as we were making our way through the crossword, I came across a clue. It read “bit of bridge obedience.” Here’s the fascinating part of words. I thought it was talking about when you play the card game of Bridge, that there are some actions you have to take. Not so. Cheri thought it probably meant what you do when you cross a bridge. Not so. She then thought maybe it had to do with how you might take care of that dental appliance – a bridge. Not so. You can see how persons coming to understand the English language from another language are driven properly around the bend, with all the different ways we would use the same word. Actually, the word “bridge” is used in: structures, places, card games, films, music, musical instruments, electronics, fitness, health care/dentistry, math, transportation and finances, at least according to the online definitions. So, take your pick as you try to figure out “bit of bridge obedience…”
We took a number of trips by the clue, trying every which way to get the simple three-letter answer. Kind of frustrating, to say the least. Finally, however, we discovered that the on-line was not complete in the variety of definitions of “bridge.” We found one more. In my brain, a tiny door was opened to a little room that held my childhood experience of watching Star Trek Tuesday nights. As they boldly went where no one had gone before, a good deal of the scenes were shot where Capt. Kirk sat, in his swiveling command chair – on the BRIDGE. When I remembered that, it only took a second or two to realize that part of the obedience there was “aye,” as in “Aye aye Capn…” Crossword solved at last!
It just all adds to my fascination for the ways in which words are created, developed, adapted and deployed. Even today, with cell phones, people still “dial” the number, and then “hang up” when they are done, both vestiges of the rotary dial phones we all knew and loved in the mid-20th century.
So – you might ask – what word has the most definitions? And which one has the least? Good questions. Actually, the champion for decades was the word, “set,” with 430 different meanings to that little word, from setting your clock, setting a record, setting something on a table, to be set, to win a set in a game, to have a set of anything, or to watch the sun set – and 423 more. Unbelievable for us to be so “set” in our ways, that we would “set” our hearts on this word.
However, over the past couple of decades, the word that was runner-up in the definition race has been able to run past “set,” and “set” a new record. The word with most definitions is now “run.” “Run” has “run” the total to 645 different definitions and counting, from running a program, to running the race, to running into a problem, to run into someone, to having your watercolors run, to run away from a problem, to run down a solution, to run through the plan, to run over a bump in the road, to run over to get something from the store, to… well, you get the gist of it all. It’s a monster of a word, and grows each day – I just don’t want to run on and on.
Perhaps the rarest word, and one used thankfully the least in our spoken language could probably be “philodox.” The word describes someone who has an excessive interest in his own opinion, and doesn’t hesitate to be “set on “running” his mouth to tell it to everyone he “runs into.”
We all know that words can be feathers to tickle another human, or a club to beat over their heads. They are as gentle as a lamb, or a wild as a snake. Words are gifts given to us, and in turn, are gifts we give to the world. As always, if we are thoughtful, deliberate and loving persons, we will use our words to make a good, strong intentional difference in our lives and those we touch. Let today be a good day for your good words – and leave the others at home. We don’t need any more bad talk these days.
(Another) word for the day: torshlusspanik. Pronounced TOR-shloos-pan-ick. Sounds German, ya? And it is – actually, it comes from three different German words that translate to mean “gate-shut-panic.” From the Middle Ages, and the time of walled cities to protect the citizens, torshlusspanik is the true fear of getting locked outside of the city gates at nightfall. Not under the protection of the city, you would be at the mercy of robbers and ne-er do wells. It’s the same as “missing the boat.”
Today, it’s really the sense of alarm that rings deep in our hearts when caused by thinking that life’s opportunities may be passing – or have passed us by. Somehow, we missed our big chance, or we were snoozing our lives away while that great thing to come, came and went. It’s a horribly honest feeling. Our best course of action, of course, is to always remain mindful of our lives and the world around us, and not be dulled into accidental living. No reason to “panik” – the best is yet to be.
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.