Today is National Literacy Day, everyone! (At least in this timezone, it still is. Barely). If you’re reading this right now, you are clearly literate 🙂 Congratulations! I’d like you to take a minute or two to think back to a time when reading wasn’t effortless for you, when you still had to sound out each word and think about what sounds the letters made.
Think about the people in your life who helped encourage you, who listened to your hesitant first efforts, who let you read the same Golden Book over and over to them for an hour. Maybe there was a teacher who was instrumental in teaching you how to read, or perhaps your mom or dad was the one who first helped the process to “click” for you.
Have you ever thanked them for introducing you to the power of the written word? (As I write this, I’m thinking of my mom and the way she drilled me in the basics of reading even when I thought I never wanted to see another letter again. I loved it when people read to me, but reading can be hard when you’re first learning and I was easily frustrated. I don’t think I’ve ever thanked her properly.)
You can certainly still love words even if you can’t read (there are strong oral traditions around the world that prove it), but being literate certainly expands the amount of words you have access to. You don’t need to be around someone who has the Iliad memorized or who has a vocabulary the size of Shakespeare’s. You only need to have access to a written text (although being around people with large vocabularies and cultural literacy never hurts, either!).
For me, it was the written word that first allowed me to truly understand the power of language and start to harness it for myself, so the fact that I’m going to use a story about watching a TV show to illustrate the power of words might seem a bit strange. Bear with me.
Did any of you watch Arthur on PBS when you were growing up? You know, the show that totally warped hundreds of kids’ ideas about what aardvarks actually look like? The episode that scared me most wasn’t a show about bullying, or camping, or anything that you might expect a kid to find frightening. It was an episode in which Arthur and his friend Buster use a word without knowing what it means, because they think it makes them sound cool, only to find out later that it has changed the way all their classmates perceive them.
(I don’t even know how the episode ends because I was too afraid to finish it).
You may be thinking, “that’s not so scary,” and you’d be right. I think what frightened me so much was that I saw myself in that circumstance… encountering a word that I thought meant one thing and using it only to find out that it meant something completely different to my listeners. I think it’s because I understood even then that words have power, and if you don’t understand all the connotations of a word, then you aren’t fully in control of that power.
That’s the heart of a “that’s what she said” joke: the idea that words can get away from you, that they can be twisted into a meaning that you’d didn’t intend or were too naive to see.
This can still happen with the written word, of course, but it’s less likely. The written word is language crystallized, able to be refined and arranged to an extent that is not possible for the spoken word (at least, not for my careless tongue).