Word by Word: A Review

Can everyone just think for a moment about how wonderful words are?

A jack of all trades, our humble tongue bends at our every whim to classify, qualify, and gratify our expressive needs. Some craftsmen create expository labyrinths, as dense and impenetrable as the thickest of New England fogs. (I’m looking at you, Hawthorne.) Others simplify—nearly to the breaking point. (Cummings.)

But how do we know what these words mean—and not only that, but that they are being used in the right way? Who makes certain that “impact” is used correctly (never a noun!)—besides furious English teachers everywhere? Who decides how words should—or, more importantly, shouldn’t—be used?

Many would point to the dictionary, that long-established cornerstone of the literary world. Where else would you find such a holy tome explicitly classifying with exactitude and brevity the acceptable meanings and uses of every word in the English language? Where else will you discover that “inveterate” is a stand-in for “habitual”? (Which should never be confused for “invertebrate”—although you can likely say that “His inveterate lying showed him to be an invertebrate.”)

In the onslaught on inveterate vs. invertebrate, its/it’s, impact: noun or verb?, dictionaries are our eternal stalwarts, keeping watch over our doddering tongue.

Or are they?

Enter Kory Stamper, my new favorite author. She just published her first book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, in March of this year. And boy, is it a page-turner. (No sarcasm here.)

I not only enjoyed a beautiful and witty exposé into Merriam-Webster’s inner workings, but also discovered a kindred spirit and word-lover. Stamper, a true wordophile, draws us into the quiet halls of Merriam-Webster; here, you can physically feel the concentration of dozens of editors and lexicographers as they glean the meaning of every word used in print. This, naturally, requires that everyone is quietly reading.

Yes, you read that right: this is a world where you are paid to read. To read! Magazines, articles, books, journals, correspondence—if it’s in English, it’s fair game for consideration as part of the next dictionary edition.

I must confess: I think this might be my next profession (unless it dies out first.) I am likely one of .5% of the population who reads absolutely anything and everything, no matter what the content. I can’t help it. How can you tell your brain to just stop reading… everything? Letters, cereal boxes, bus ads, newsprint… My parents teased I would even read ketchup packets if they were within reach. (What else are you supposed to do while eating your McNuggets? Talk to your classmates?)

And how else do you learn what words mean, short of reading the dictionary? Context give words meaning. People give words meaning. And lexicographers  boil it all down into a single, short, and sweet definition:

in·cred·i·ble \(ˌ)in-ˈkre-də-bəl\ adj : too extraordinary and improbable to be believed <making incredible claims>

Someone sat down, looked at every use of incredible in (nearly) every magazine, book, and article—and came up with that definition. Isn’t that just incredible?

However, there is a dark side to this coin. Everyone believes dictionaries to be a voice of authority on language. Which, by all rights, dictionaries themselves have been touting ever since the early 19th-century dictionary wars.

(Yes, they are a real thing. Capitalism makes liars of us all—even us language lovers.)

There’s just one problem with that claim.

Dictionaries craft definitions by capturing a language as it is being used, out in the wild. They do not hold any scruples about someone using ain’t. (Look it up now—it’s definitely in there!) And yes, an entry exists of “impact” as a noun. (Le gasp!)

This is not because lexicographers know nothing of proper grammar or parts of speech. Far from it: they had to sit down and decipher impact was being used as a noun in the first place—and decide if it was common enough to merit an entry.

Dictionaries aren’t holding a ruler over your head, beating you on the shoulders for forgetting the proper possessive for “it”. They are taking snapshots. Snapshots of everything you say. That we say. That our language says. Measuring its tiny tectonic shifts, from one generation to the next. Our language has been centuries in the making.

And our dictionary friends are keeping its photo albums.


(Seriously. Go out and buy it/lend it/read it today. Word by Word by Kory Stamper. You can check out her blog as well—my fellow word nerds won’t regret it!)


Beneath the Pond

Everything was gray.
A pallid sky, heavy with clouds, mirrored the snowy landscape. A single tree broke the scene, its leafless arms bending over a lifeless pond.
Stepping closer, there appeared two — no, three — more figures beneath the tree. One paced worriedly on its thick-soled boots, etching tight circles in the fresh snow. The other knelt a few paces away, stooping down to a small, prone bundle at the base of the tree.
Heaving sobs emanated from the mother as she paced, choking out directions to a distant ambulance over her cell. The husband, his brow knit with worry, knelt down again to the wet bundle. A path glistened from the pair to a gash in the pond’s surface.
A pale child’s face, no more than seven, appeared as the father’s trembling hands compressed her chest. He drew his mouth to hers again, forcing steaming air into her still lungs.
The mother kept crying, the father kept pressing, the child kept silent.
It wasn’t that she stopped breathing.
She had forgotten how.
An eternal thirty minutes before, the girl was walking towards the tree. “Towards” is a bit of a stretch here, as she meandered in every direction — visiting a mountainous snowdrift here, bidding a sparkling, snowy bush a good day there — paying homage to every landmark now transformed with shining ice and snow.
She giggled as she ran along, stuffing her pockets full of marvelous treasures: frozen juniper berries, the odd pinecone, and dozens of ice-crusted leaves and needles deemed too lovely to leave behind. The air stung her cheeks as she ran about the biggest place in the whole wide world: the sprawling fields and hills surrounding her grandparent’s countryside home.
Following a narrow pathway in the snow, she came upon the tall tree by the pond. The somber scene detracted little from her excitement — she sprinted along the shore as she eagerly sought precious, smooth stones. The wind whistled in the tree’s branches, stiffly clattering over her hurried footsteps.
Gathering up her newfound treasures (her pockets were frozen stiff), she turned to go back — hesitating by the edge of icy pond. Fear flitted across her face. She was a whole seven years old now, and didn’t quite believe her father’s stories of monsters under the water’s surface. She didn’t quite not believe him, either. Gathering herself, she clenched her fists and held her breath, inching towards the water’s edge and daring to peek into its solid depths.
She stared wide-eyed. Her heart pounded in her chest as time slowed to a crawl. After a moment of utter stillness, she burst with relief, absolutely certain nothing below was looking back. Growing bolder, she edged out onto the ice. Her arms tingled while butterflies fluttered in her stomach, floating above the darkness.
Moments stretched into minutes, and she waited. For something. Anything. The butterflies slowly subsided, her fingers and legs now numb and tired with cold. She turned to make her way back home. But wait — a flash! Twisting back, she hurriedly fell down to the ice, straining to catch the movement again. 
Staring intently, she suddenly realized the pond was not frozen at all. Underneath her mittened hands, there were plants, and fish, and creatures of all kinds — and they were all moving!
And with that, the ice cracked.
The world had gone silent. She fell deeper and deeper into the pond, the pale surface disappearing as she sank. She waved her arms furiously and kicked, flailing against the water as it pulled her under. Her chest burned, a pounding rising in her ears. Grabbing her throat, she gasped wildly for air.
Only she did not drown. Shock turned to relief, her heartbeat slowing, her breath easing — but she wasn’t really breathing, you really can’t underwater — and looked about this strange new world.
Am I a fish? she wondered. She looked at her hands and wriggled her fingers — her mittens had floated away. No, I am definitely still a girl. She lifted her gaze, marveling at the thin streams of sunlight as they penetrated the deep, dark blue of the pond around her. Only calling it a pond would be like calling the Seven Seas a puddle. She was floating in the largest expanse she had ever seen. The depths stretched endlessly around her.
And yet she was not afraid. I am welcome here
With a kick, she darted away into the expanse. The pond teemed with life — forests of kelp swayed lazily as she swam by, revealing timid schools of fish and docile, mammoth-like squids. Forests of sea anemones and magnificent coral reefs begged to be explored — and explore them she did! Juniper berries and polished stones were forgotten as she discovered whales, starfish, and sea horses. 
The waters went on forever, yet she was not afraid. She was one with this vastness, and it was one with her. Everything that was, that is, that ever would be was in these shadowy depths with her. The universe filled her young mind. 
And then it happened. A shot of ice stabbed into her heart. Her chest tightened again, the ringing in her ears beginning their crescendo. The icy grip extended to her shoulders as she flailed, the deep, icy blue disappearing below her as she rose faster and faster towards the surface.
Suddenly she saw the gray sky again, the sunlight dimmed with low-hanging clouds. She felt the solid ground beneath her as she watched her mother, sobbing and endlessly pacing, while her father rhythmically pushed against her ribcage.
She stared silently into the gray sky. She wasn’t breathing. She had forgotten how.
Spring had come to the fields. Long tufts of grass waved ceaselessly while large clouds sailed overhead, dotting the landscape with shadow and light.
She walked the same path as she had, six years ago. The dirt path was overgrown now, requiring some care to find one’s way. The tree loomed in the distance — it was as tall and spindly as ever, now graced with fitful sprigs of green, tossed about by the constant wind.
Her sandals crunched on the pebbly shore. Her long, auburn curls whipped about as her eyes  reconstructed the play. My mother paced there, she thought. My father knelt there… and there I was.
It was a graveyard without a marker. Her parents parted ways that day. Her grandparents had since passed, the house behind her boarded up and sold as she stood here, taking in the scene one last time.
Slowly she walked towards the shoreline, the light playing on its rippled surface. She still didn’t believe her father’s stories. They were hers now.
Holding her breath, she edged into the pond. The chilly depths sent prickles across her skin, making her shiver in the hot noonday sun. She edged further, arms lifted, waiting to enter the depths. A large inhale, and she plunged beneath the surface.
The water rushed in her ears as she dove in. Her chest began to burn as the water pushed her up towards the surface, keeping her from diving deeper. She struggled against it, clumsily swimming against its pull. Chest tightening, she finally opened her eyes. Her heart sank at what she saw: dusty motes hung in the water, obscuring the sun’s journey to the rocky pond floor. No plants, no creatures were to be seen. 
She shot up towards the surface, breaking into the sunlight and gasping for air. The water continued to hoist her up as she made her way to the shore, coughing and gasping on all fours. Sitting back on her heels, she looked back at the scene under the tree. There her father, there her mother, and there she…
She reached into her pocket, gingerly pulling out a small starfish. Your fingers were clutching it pretty tightly, her father’s voice echoed. It’s a starfish. Where did you get that?
Her shoulders shook gently as she tried to hold it in. Big girls don’t cry. Big girls shouldn’t cry. Big girls…
She covered her face with her hands, her body racked with sobs. She cried for her father. She cried for her mother. She cried for her grandmother and grandfather.
But most of all, she cried for the world beneath the pond.

The Song Within Me


I have a music problem.

You see, I have studied music for quite a long time. I’ve spent more time in music lessons than with my own mother. My music stand knows me better than my boyfriend. And a single sliver of wood from my clarinet likely carries enough of my genetic material to create my own clone.

But for all of that, I have never created my own music.

Now, that isn’t such a surprising thing. In a post-Mendelssohn society, with its primary focus on music reproduction rather than production, it should not come as a shock that a large number of musicians are not composers. Technique reigns supreme. Dissertations and theses on improvisational techniques, proper embouchure, acceptable phrasing, and valid musical interpretation abounds. Music accepted into the lexicon places its composer before all: all must bow before his wishes (whatever they were to begin with).

To get ahead musically, you must do so in the proper way. You must sound just so. You must play just so. You must perform just so. Everything is predetermined, nothing left to chance. (By the way, could you make that Ab a shade less staccatissimo? And you’re also way, way sharp. Is your reed too hard/soft/new/old/chipped/dry/wet?)

I love music. Anyone who knows me knows how often I break out into song. Every moment is another sound. A simple word or cadence spins off into symphonies.

And yet I have never created music. Somewhere along the way, I felt I wasn’t good enough. Not good enough to write. Not good enough to create. Not good enough to even have my own interpretation.

The anxiety is overwhelming. I hold my clarinet in my hands, and the storm begins: Am I holding it right? How is my embouchure? That was a lousy breath. Oh, what a cruddy sound. So flat. Ugh. I didn’t even articulate properly. How am I going to play anything? Oh, just flubbed that arpeggio. Told ya. Can’t do it. Nope.

More often than not, the paralysis begins before I even hold the horn. I won’t be able to do this. Not today. Not ever.

How can anyone create within such suffocation?


It’s true: it’s impossible to play a sad song on a ukulele. That, and pineapples.

The other day, I took in my hand likely the simplest (and understated) instrument on the market: the ukulele. Yes, start making fun of me now. I still can’t play much more than a handful of chords. And anything more complicated than that? Out of the question!

… but strangely enough, the music has started coming. Unfamiliar frets underneath my hands, I feverishly try to pen out chords and melodies. There is no fear. There is no apprehension. There is nothing but curiosity. What once was barred, is now free. I can write. I can sing. I can create.

I am free.

The Bard, the Antihero


The Bard gets a bad rap in video game lore.

(No pun intended.)

From tabletop games such as Dungeons and Dragons to console games such as Final Fantasy, Bards are definitely the odd man out. They are not particularly the best with swords, staves, axes or archery. You can’t depend on them to open locked doors or to steal needed items. They dabble in magic, but don’t typically rain fire on their foes. They have some light healing powers, but won’t save your party from demise.

What DO Bards do, then?

Bards are cast as jack-of-all-trades, masters of none. In popular culture, they have only one defining feature: they sing.

Talk about bad luck. No wonder people ditch the lute for the sword. (Or, their lute gets smashed.)

But is the Bard truly as bad as all that? Historically, Bards were respected as being highly learned and were storehouses of knowledge and history. If it was not for their oral histories, tales and chronologies, we would not have the rich histories and epic tales from civilizations long gone. Where would our sense of place be without the stories of King Arthur? Where would we be without the works of Shakespeare or Homer? How dry would our cultural heritage be without the likes of Väinämöinen?

(Who, by the way, is identified as a source for J.R.R. Tolkein’s Gandalf. Tom Bombadil also has a host of similarities to Väinämöinen, both relying on the power of song and lore and being one of the most powerful beings in their respective worlds.)

But we arrive at a common theme: in each of these tales, the all-powerful Bard — holder of knowledge, advisor, sage, and powerful catalyst — fades away. Whether it is the approach of the Age of Men or an end to an era of paganism, Bards are tied to their histories and communities who give them power. The Bard is much less a hack-and-slash paladin or a fire-and-brimstone wizard than a steward. And once a steward’s charge is gone — or their charge outright rejects him — it is time for the steward to move on.

Perhaps popular culture eschews the Bard because he does not fit in comfortably with our favorite hero stereotypes. He is not a knight in shining armor. He does not resurrect the dead. While powerful, he does not himself take the glory. The Bard works through the people around himself and leads them to victory. The Bard, with his vast knowledge, determines the meaning of the patterns of events around him.

In short, the Bard is a shaper of ages. He holds the keys to history, which shapes a people, a nation, a culture. How do you encapsulate such power in the confines of a simple tabletop game? (Especially without becoming an outright game breaker.)

But remember the true power of the Bard. He chooses his actions carefully, taking note of the events around him. The Bard lies in wait, patiently watching until he is needed.

And then he shapes the world.

A Spring Resolution


Spring is here in all its glory. The long winter (and those endless snowdrifts) is finally drawing to a close. And Lent, too, nears its end.

I left my Lutheran roots years ago, yet I still cherish Lent with its contemplation, reflection and repentance. I value awareness. Awareness of weaknesses, shortcomings, guilt and sins.

Yet it is not only my own sin that I contemplate. The sins of humanity — the lack of basic decency, thoughtfulness, care and compassion — weighs upon us all. Its marks strike deep in my heart, from the mindless racism in Ferguson, to the senseless war in Syria, to the blatant pollution and destruction of nature and human lives in West Virginia.

Yet it also makes its mark on all of us. Whether or not we admit it, we all suffer for humanity’s sins.

Is it fair? Perhaps not. But that’s not important. We will always have sin and darkness. There will always be pain. There will always be burdens.

But what is important is how we strive to redeem humanity’s darkness with the light of our lives. What is important is how we strive to redeem our own inner darkness.

Will we succeed? It depends. Worldwide, the prognosis is poor. There is only so much we can do individually.

But together — ah. There is the key.

But you must let go of your fear. Let go of your desire for success, even on this front. Focusing on the ever-growing distance to the goal will only defeat you. Focus on what you can do, on what you know to be true and right and good.

And move forward. Strive to be the best human you can possibly be.

As I wander back out into the glorious spring sunlight, I leave you with the words of Kurt Elling from his single, Resolution. May they give you the inspiration and joy that they gave me.

Go forth. And be a light to others.

* * * * *

Go to war against the impotent side of living.
Use every power you’re given to stand and act like a man.
And pray every day to every god.
Strike the bowl of heaven, and the ringing will become a law.
Build bridges where you need to go.
Bring the fire of enlightenment here to life below.
Speak mercy to the things you meet.
Listen up to hear the whispering of the blood you bleed.
Stay awake — no mistake — dance the dream awake.
And awake.”



His inquisitive gaze filled my vision. The frenetic clatter of plates, glasses and silverware faded as his direct (and discomfiting) query filtered through:

Are you nervous right now?

No, of course not. I, age twenty-six, miles from home, scrabbling together enough income to hold onto my apartment, my car and my insurance, new to the food service industry, shy and awkward, unfamiliar with the menu and unfamiliar with you, am most certainly not nervous in any way.

I quailed under his stare. Because for me, this question wasn’t the first time.

* * * * *

Some have the gift of poise. No matter the circumstances, they keep a cool head, a confident gaze, and the perfect expression. Are they even human? you wonder. How can they stand so high above us mere mortals?

I, unfortunately, was not granted this gift.

Time and time again, I find myself thrust into situations feeling woefully unprepared (even if I *was* prepared), frightened and fearing failure. And my emotions always manage to shine through: the fear, the worry, the panic — all of it.

Why is it so hard for me to keep it together? How can others play it cool and keep going?

Or is there something I’m missing?

* * * * *

A tornado had hit the dining room. Birthday cake and candles littered one end, with wine glasses and platters of uneaten appetizers at the other. We had pulled off a full house from open till close — and three large reservations to boot.

My head spun. I recalled setting down the first table. After that, only a haze. I couldn’t have told you my name if I had to. I had worked furiously and failed horribly. I couldn’t keep moving fast enough — drinks could never stay filled, food never came out fast enough, and don’t get me started with fetching desserts.

And then it started falling apart.

A bottle of mustard exploded behind the server station. A table’s food order nearly got lost in the crossfire. A line of customers started going out the door. The phone was ringing off the hook. We were short on forks and out of glassware. And I was drowning.

I refused to make eye contact with the other servers. I had let them down. I had crumpled like tin foil under the pressure.

The worst part — everyone could see it. Are you doing okay? Are you all right out there? Is there anything we can do? Was it pity? Was I biffing it? Was I going to get shown out the door at the end of the night?

I remember being handed a slice of chocolate cake, gluten-free and fudgey beyond belief. The manager even offered me the back office for some peace and quiet. I politely declined, and returned to my server station. I could hardly choke it down, wave after wave of shameful tears threatening to engulf me along with dark chocolate, ganache and wine-plump cranberries.

The last customer finally left, leaving behind a ransacked dining room. I started scrubbing tables, giving my coworkers a large berth.

No such luck – Joanna (who was closing) called me up to the cash register. I walked up to the front, bracing for an onslaught of pity.

She lifted her eyes from counting a stack of bills. Hey, Renee — I think you did great tonight.

Me? Done great? I chuckled in disbelief.

No, I’m being serious. She shut the drawer, making eye contact with me. We got busy, and you did the most important thing — you kept going, and you kept smiling. 

That same smile spread over my lips. “Sometimes,” I said, “smiling is all that we can do.”

Joanna nodded slightly. Just remember — she added — pay attention to what you need. When you feel it coming, don’t panic. Take a step back. Breathe. Count your tables. Then keep going. Just always remember yourself first. And don’t panic.

* * * * *

There are hundreds of things they don’t teach you in school. And I’m not just talking about a dining room rush.

Don’t panic — and nothing can ever touch you. Even if you aren’t a zarkin’ frood. Some are naturals. Others (like me) have a ways to go. But it can be learned.

And most importantly, keeping chill is not about forgetting yourself. (Which I am apt to do.) If you lose yourself and panic, you’re done for. No one will be able to find your mind once you’ve lost it. To stay in control, you have to pull yourself away, take stock, and jump back in.

Just don’t panic. And remember your towel.

Bold One

I have never known anyone else like him.

The gentle confidence he holds permeates his frame – his stance, his gait, his voice.

But most of all, his eyes. With a glance and a nod, you know he’ll get the job done. You can’t help but trust him — how could someone so certain do otherwise?

I’m blushing with shame. I blush because I envy him.

Sitting across from each other, coffee in hand, he tells me the same story, time and time again — I have the same potential as he. I, too, am made for great things.

I know, I know, I say. And yet my heart sees, along the seam of the beaten, wooden table, the disparity between us.

I must try. I must keep moving. Because if I don’t, I will never meet my goal. I will never reach him… or, perhaps, more to the point, I will never reach myself.

Fallen leaves trade places with snow. The winds have shifted. I string up my sails, testing the winds. And look forward.

A song rises in my heart, a smile upon my lips.

It is time.