For the Love of Words

A few years back when my grandpa passed away I not only lost my last grandparent, but the world lost one cool cat; a man who not only played trombone in the Sooner band, but married his college sweetheart who was, in his words, “the prettiest girl in Norman,” and he had a penchant for saying, “Dear Gussie!” in his measured Midwestern lilt whenever you impressed or shocked him, which delighted me to no end. He was known as a man who had a way with words and he could spin a tale that kept the rapt attention of all his grandkids, especially me.

When the extended Graves family got together to say good-bye to Daniel Maloy Graves II we each took turns sharing a favorite memory. My dad shared several memories, but one in particular made a lasting impression, “He had the best vocabulary and a system to improve it. When he would come across a word he didn’t know, he’d look it up and write down the definition. He would then make a point of using that word in conversation at least three times the next day to commit it to memory. I always admired that.”

If you needed proof you could head over to his house in Dayton, Ohio where any book in his library would hold underlined passages and words with definitions scrawled in the margin. I remember standing in the cemetery in Norman, Oklahoma watching the smile spread across my dad’s face as he shared this family factoid, the lines around his eyes softening, shining through the tears. I was struck by the tale, not only because my grandfather lost his stories and vocabulary to Alzheimer’s but because I do this too. I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was an inherited trait or perhaps something I witnessed long ago during those Dayton summers and somehow committed to memory. I love underlining passages that speak to me and the thrill looking up new words to add to my vocabulary. I didn’t go as far as trying to use them in sentences, but after that day in Norman? I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I’ve since picked-up.

Let's Look It Up

The other night as I sat reading “An Irreverent Curiosity” by David Farley I stumbled across a new word: “atavistic”. True to form, I grabbed my iPhone and fired up the Dictionary app to enlighten me (although in hindsight, I wonder whether Siri would have told me? Another experiment for another day). And, as luck would have it, Marc looked up from his own reading at the same time and snapped a picture of me in all my logophilic glory. The next day an email appeared and there I was, caption and all. It seemed a fitting tribute to the Graves family trait and one that I honor every time I pick up a book.

And yes, I did my darndest to use atavistic in a sentence three times the next day. Grandpa Graves would be proud.


35 thoughts on “For the Love of Words

  1. There is a certain reverence for vocabulary and the written word that’s missing these days. This interest is definitely a gift that you should share and pass down

    • I wholeheartedly agree. There is something about the richness of language, how a single word can perfectly capture an idea. It’s definitely a lost art in this day and age of animated gifs (not that memes aren’t great, because they are 🙂 ).

  2. What a great story!
    I feel like I know you now. 🙂
    Your Grandpa sounds like he was a really special guy.

  3. How very cool. I’m sure you inherited this trait through your grandpa, maybe through some kind of osmosis. . . I do this too, although often I find that I don’t end up using the new words because they seem to fancy. . . 🙂

    • I admit — it is a little odd to start tossing out polysyllabic terms, I felt a little self-conscious at first. But the more you do it, the easier it is. Heck, we could start a vocabulary revolution! 🙂

  4. Love learning new words – adding atavistic to my list. One reason I love reading on my Nook is that I can look up a word as I read without having to run to the dictionary or my phone. I think I would have loved your Grandpa!

    • Thanks, Dana. He was a pretty cool cat. I love reading on my Kindle for the same reason (instant definition gratification), but every now and again I will read a book just for the feel of the pages in my hands and the sound of my pencil underlining passages.

  5. I always say I’m going to do this (look up words, use them), but I never actually follow through. It’s great that your grandpa modeled this to you and that you are carrying on his tradition.

    • I’ll admit, it was a little hard to get started. I would write down words to look up later, but then realize I’d leave a sentence without fully comprehending what the author had to say. Now I can’t imagine not stopping to consult the dictionary. It’s as if the word has transformed into a roadblock and the next paragraph won’t materialize until my logophilia has been satisfied.

    • Thank you! Although, I realize now that I never actually defined this in my post (d’oh). Or wait, maybe I should say that I meant for people to look it up. Yes. Scratch that earlier part. This was actually my intention all along 🙂

  6. I can relate… I have a dictionary nearby whenever I read a book that promises to have words I’ve never heard before (or have since forgotten from SAT and GRE studies years ago)!

    • Oh, the SAT and GRE! I’ve completely forgotten half of those memorized words too. Or actually, maybe repressed is more accurate. Me + standardized tests = don’t mix.

  7. I don’t look up words so much (my mother mourned the day I moved out because the dictionary had such small text) but I do look up information often when I’m reading. If there is a reference made to say matchstick girls in an historical romance along with the illnesses that were common to them, I look it up. The internet for me is a beautiful place.

    • Where would be without Google? I do the same, but find that once I start researching references, I’ll get sucked into the world of Wikipedia and forget all about reading. Only to return to it later, of course.

  8. Your granddad sounds like he was a great man! I have to know, what does “atavistic” mean? (I could look it up too, but then you wouldn’t have the chance to use it!)

    • Lessons learned from writing this blog post:
      1) the community is stellar. I’m so happy to have found you all!
      2) I never actually defined atavistic. Whoops. I assumed that I was the lone imbecile that didn’t know what it meant (and truth be told, was fearful that admitting I didn’t know the definition to the word would brand me just that!).

      Without further adieu: the definition of atavism: characterized by reversion to something ancestral or ancient.

      In a sentence? My system for learning new words appears to be an atavistic quality I inherited from my grandpa.

  9. I love the dictionary app! And I love the feature on my nook that will give the definition of a highlighted word as you’re reading. Ah, technology!

  10. Wow, my grandfather died last September and it still is very fresh to me. Reading your post brought back many memories of my grandfather like when he used to make buckwheat pancakes in the shape of cartoon characters or his whisker rubs. Great tribute.

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