My daughter, the lexicographer
That means she’s wicked good with words
I've always been surprised by my daughter's vocabulary.
She's a well-spoken little girl, which is something I attribute to her teachers, all of whom have been great about encouraging her reading and writing.
It's just that her powers of elocution are catching up to me. (Attention daughter: I threw that word in on purpose to impress you.)
If she hears a word on TV she doesn't quite understand, she'll ask me to define it for her. Many times, that's easier said than done. And she won't take “I don't know” for an answer.
“Daddy, what does passive-aggressive mean?” she asked while watching The Smurfs movie one day recently.
She knows I'm a full-time writer, so she expects me to have an answer at the ready. I'd expect it, too.
It's just that sometimes – often times – I don't.
“It means… To… If you…” I stumbled as my mind tried to break the phrase down. “It means to be aggressive, but passively.”
She gave me that look. Clearly my effort was lacking.
“I don't know, it just means passive-aggressive,” I said.
This definitely wasn't good enough.
It's a lot like when I coached mite-level youth hockey. I was asked to take a group of kids and teach them how to take a wrist shot against the boards. I brought the little skaters over to the side of the rink and suddenly realized I never really taught anyone to do it before.
“OK,” I said. “You just take the puck and… Take a wrist shot. You know – a wrist shot. Ready, go.”
I saw questioning eyes looking to me for more guidance. It's the same look my daughter gives me as I struggle to define new words for her growing vocabulary.
My wife then walked into the room.
“It's when you have aggressive emotions inside while behaving calm and kind on the outside,” the UNH '92 English major said, flexing her bookish skills effortlessly.
“Yeah, that,” I said.
My daughter just laughed. I could see I wasn't getting credit for this one. Soon enough, we were alone watching TV again when she turned to me.
“What's aggressive mean?”
I buried my head in my hands.
“It means aggressive,” I said. “It just means aggressive. You know, aggressive.”
It's not a difficult word to define, I just never really thought about breaking it down so a 9-year-old would get it.
“OK, how's this – it means pugnacious.”
She continued giving me the wrist shot stare of disappointment.
She got it.
It happens pretty regularly. We've recently wrestled over “sophisticated,” (wicked fancy) and “exuberant” (wicked happy) – both of which were much easier than “passive-aggressive,” thank you Smurfs.
The great thing is, once she understands the word, she uses it properly. She sprinkles it into conversation, making me feel like I did something right. Only then I remember how I often just say the word back to her much louder, thinking she'll understand. So maybe it's a back-and-forth learning experience. If only I could get the word “wicked” out of my descriptions, I might actually be rather helpful.
Bill Burke is a writer who takes shelter in a domicile in southern N.H., along with his perspicacious spouse and loquacious progeny.