You are reminded of what a language wing nut you are when the guy seated opposite you—in a diner booth, on a first date—uses the phrase "cause célèbre." He uses it properly and with correct pronunciation and whoops, there you go: you get all blushy outside and fluttery inside. You like flowers and thoughtful gestures and surprise gifts as much as the next person, but what really gets you starry-eyed and goofy is language: well-considered, beautifully constructed, designed to illuminate and devastate.
Words are probably unreasonably important to you. You are in love with them, in fact, and with etymology and the power of language and its handmaidens: the period, the comma, that pogo stick exclamation point.
You grew up amongst voracious readers. For your family, Christmas was always a major festival of book-giving. Photos from the holidays of your childhood depict you and your sister and brother slumped about the living room in different chairs, each planted face-first in a volume by Saki or Roald Dahl or Madeleine L'Engle.
You are the kind of person who dies just a little bit every time you read "impactful," especially in a news report by trained language people who should know better. You cringe and think they ought to stick with "effective" or "forceful" or any of a variety of other hard-working words that stand ready to do the job more gracefully than the imposter "impactful," with its cobbled-together parvenu awkwardness.
You give an interior mental cheer when in conversation, someone correctly uses "among" rather than "between," or "fewer" instead of "less." You try to avoid driving down that street where two mailboxes in a row display family names with apostrophes: the Percy’s, the DiNardo’s.
Cause célèbre: apparently, it doesn't take much to thrill you.
This guy thrills you, though, and not only because he has strong, competent-looking hands and the good taste to share a birthday with Wendell Berry. You find yourself experiencing a zing because he has just confidently detonated a French phrase that doesn't see a lot of action here in rural eastern Ohio. It's a phrase that's hard to say right without giving off an oily shimmer of Pepé Le Pew. But he does it, without cockiness: with ease. You have your suspicions that this may be a fellow language-worshipper.
Turns out, he is. He's a German-born journalist who owns too many books—which is to say, he has as many books as you do—and most of them are on unwieldy subjects (philosophy, history, religion). He is a little covetous of the 13-volume hardbound 1933 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary you inherited from your grandparents. He is sincerely interested when you show him in the OED that “brang” is actually a word (meaning: whale carcass. Thank you, OED).
His idea of a great gift is a biography of Thomas Hardy, your favorite novelist, and in reading it you learn that Thomas Hardy's pallbearers included Rudyard Kipling, J. M. Barrie and George Bernard Shaw. This makes you love Hardy even more, which deepens your crush on this man. You find yourself willing, in turn, to make room for his abiding crush on Flannery O’Connor.
Yes, you are impressed. Impressed enough to marry him, as it turns out, and not walk off into the sunset—you're both a little too chipped around the edges for that—but to make a strong start at a marriage you both fully expect to last you the rest of your word-picky, book-filled, language-brimming lives.
Now here you are—or here we are, Steve and I—and yep, I'm switching from third-person to first-person here because it's our story, and that's allowed. (You can do that with language: turn the camera around, swing across eras, create an entirely new world.)
Steve and I adore each other. We get along with a sweet, forgetful ease. He's the best kisser on the face of the planet, and he makes me breakfast nearly every morning. When he comes home, he looks at me, tilts his head and says, “There she is.” When I’m wrapped in his arms, a lighted billboard in my head blinks: SAFE. WARM. HAPPY.
At home, we leave each other notes in a shared journal, and on Facebook, we choose favorite lyrics to leave on each other’s walls. We read for hours—with each other, and to each other. We have a practice of giving each other a "BWK”—a Big Word Kiss—any time either of us uses a particularly fine word in daily conversation. We're as in love with language as we are with each other.
So for two people who know how to think and speak in whole paragraphs, why was communication occasionally so knotty? Why did we have these tiffs that seemed so similar in character, yet were sparked by all sorts of different catalysts? When we had what my grandfather would have termed "a set-to," it was generally brief, but it was vivid and uncomfortable—a rear-end journey down a corrugated slide of misunderstanding and indignant feeling.
I'm articulate and direct in a way that can come across as overly my-way-or-the-highway. Steve's articulate too, but more reticent, with an internal compass whose default setting is I-don't-want-to-cause-a-fuss.
“You’re just as opinionated as I am,” I said to him one day, “you’re just sneakier about it.”
It boiled down to this: Steve would feel dictated to by my directness and my expectation that for the most part, all right-thinking people would agree with me. I would feel sideswiped by his passive-aggressive behavior when he said everything was fine, no, he wasn't mad, why did I ask, it's fine. When clearly, it wasn't fine.
In what was otherwise a peaceful, lovely satin ribbon of a marriage, spats relating to our communication differences reared their wart-studded heads every month or two. We were unsettled by these bumps, and both feeling at a loss for how to address them. How could this be so difficult? But it was: the two talented communicators were having trouble untying basic communication knots. We felt like gourmet cooks who kept burning the toast.
After one off-kilter evening, Steve turned to me in bed and said, "I have an idea. For the next 24 hours, we each have to say exactly what's on our minds—nicely, considerately. All honesty, no blowback.”
He kept looking at me. I was thinking. “Just for a day! We could do anything for a day," he said.
Well, I already say what's on my mind. This was a suit that already fit me, though it could certainly use a little "nicely" tailoring in the waist. And maybe a smidgen of "considerately" shaping in the shoulders. So I said, "Sure."
The next morning at breakfast, we were discussing a beautiful local building. It's a ceramics museum and former post office in the Beaux Arts style, and a gem of our local downtown. I said, "You know, so-and-so told me that way back when, architectural fashions would start on the two coasts and then not work their way in to the central states until about 20 years later."
Steve took a sip of coffee and said, "I do know that, because you've already told me. Several times." I burst out laughing. He started to laugh, too. He said, "Oh, this is nice."
We've been watching "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" recently, and Bruce Boxleitner appeared briefly in an episode as a good-looking guy who asks out Murray's daughter. He looked so familiar to us both, but we were thrown by the 1970's male version of Farrah Fawcett hair.
Once we figured it out, Steve was content to continue watching—but I was constitutionally unable to let it pass without sharing the fact that Boxleitner was, for many years, married to Melissa Gilbert, who began starring on "Little House on the Prairie" just a year after Boxleitner's "Mary Tyler Moore Show" appearance. This cute TV actor had been married to Laura Ingalls Wilder!
I feel compelled to do this because roughly 75% of my brain is given over to useless TV and movie trivia. I live for those moments—those rare, rare moments—when I drop something like the Boxleitner tidbit into conversation and someone raises their eyebrows and says, "Really? Huh!"
Steve did not raise his eyebrows and share his joy at being privy to these details. He also didn’t set his shoulders into “harrumph” posture, and he didn’t shift away from me on the couch. Instead he said—nicely, considerately—"I just want to watch the show. I don't like losing the thread of it."
I was surprised. "Oh!" I said.
"It's fun background info, but I just wish you'd tell me that stuff after," he explained.
"Done," I said. And we smiled at each other.
Later that week, I asked Steve to mail some packages for me—I make chocolates and sell them online, and had orders that needed to go out. He said, "What if I don't feel like it?" To which I responded, "Come ONNNNNN." Steve dragged his feet with another comment and I started to gear up into what my father calls “Ike mode.”
But I stopped. I told him—I hope nicely, I think considerately—"I make the chocolates. It brings in income for us both. I'm asking you to please do your part and mail the packages." He said, "I know, and I will." And he did. Done.
That night, Steve told me he actually felt relieved. I told him I felt the same. Where he used to roll his eyes on the inside but on the outside be ever-patient and cheerful, now he could just let me know he was irked and be done with it. And because I wasn't used to him serving up the occasional side dish of mild sarcasm or stubbornness, I was tickled by it. He didn't overdo it, but he did it some, and just that little bit added piquancy to our conversations—not to mention the fact that it relieved me of feeling that I needed to decode his body language.
In turn, I made a more consistent, conscientious effort to tone down what could charitably be called my call-to-arms side, which surfaces when I’m tense or feeling pressured.
Things felt better. Things were better.
Our 24-hour trial period has stretched into a few months, and the difference it's made has been remarkable. Steve and I are communicating in a way that requires more flexibility and deliberation from us both. We're finding that—like choosing the right person to love—being brave enough and thoughtful enough to choose the right words improves everything. We’re learning that language and love have formidable tensile strength, and can hold almost anything you heap onto them if you do it with care.
Even language wing nuts develop a shorthand. We don’t always need a BW. So every now and again, I'll say, "We're still doing it, right?" and Steve'll agree. Or he'll look at me and say, "Another day?" and I'll nod.
We're still doing it—for another day.