Saturday, May 02, 2015

Song of the day

"Wordy Rappinghood", by Tom Tom Club.

Ever since pieces by Mary Norris started appearing on the New Yorker web site, I have had the sense of having discovered a kindred spirit. There is much for me to thank her for. She pointed me in the direction of Palomino Blackwing pencils. (They changed my life.) She has frequently validated my choice of career at moments when I have had doubts as to the worth of dedicating oneself to, shall we say, finessing others' use of the English language. She has been, for many years, a part of the invisible team of people (or are they elves?) responsible for nailing down, hectic week after hectic week, the finely wrought prose of the New Yorker magazine itself, one of the few repositories of the written word where I can completely relax in the knowledge that what I am about to read is going to be (a) right, (b) spelled correctly and (c) put together in properly structured sentences. (Although last week, while reading, as you do, a long piece about an 82-year-old nun who broke into a high-security US nuclear-weapons facility, I fell upon a typo (of the missing "little word" variety). Curiously, I immediately felt a sharp pang of empathetic sadness for Mary Norris.)

And now she has written a book, "Between You & Me", which the very kind young people with whom I work gave me as a birthday present yesterday. (Thanks, guys.) Usually, when I am given a book, it takes a while before I feel ready to start in on reading it; or I am halfway through some door-stopper or other which ends up taking a year out of my life. But this time, the planets have aligned, the door-stopper has been put back on the shelf, and I am into it.

Early in the first chapter, I read the following sentence: "I had a traumatic experience with the word ["weird"] in fourth grade."

I am going to like this book.

I, too, had a traumatic experience with a word when I was in primary school. I can't remember which grade, but I remember which classroom I was in, so I think it must have been grade five. (I don't think I got to the end of the spelling book during my previous go-round in that same classroom, in grade two, although I probably could have; I was rubbish at pretty much everything, but I could spell the legs off a table.) At the bottom of the last page of the Victorian Education Department spelling book, on which page lurked, coiled and ready to trap the innocent, the most difficult words Victorian primary school children could possibly imagine, sat one final word, "it's". Just "it's".

The idea was that you would hear a word, write it down, and check the book to see if you had spelled it correctly. How hard could "it's" be?

I knew that the answer to (the phonetically pronounced) "its" was meant to be "it's" because I had already visited the last page of the spelling book; I had no fear of "difficult" words. But (unusually for me at that age, when I was scared to say boo to my own shadow) the word "Why?" formed in my head, and it would not be denied. "How do I know?", I wanted to know. "How do I know if it's an "it's" or an "its"?" My teacher was unable to answer this. For the first time in my life, I had an awareness that the adult world was fallible. The answer I ended up getting was along the lines of "We know that the answer is "it's" because that's what is printed in the book." But that wasn't an answer to the question if the question, as it could only be, was "How do you spell (the phonetically pronounced) "its"?"

Had I been confident and articulate enough to frame a response to this, it would have been along the lines of "But it can be spelled in one of two ways. I can't know if I am spelling it correctly unless I know the sentence in which it appears." But I was neither confident nor articulate, so instead of saying anything I just sat at my desk feeling sad.

I often find myself saying, not entirely seriously but not entirely not seriously, either, "I'm not like other people". Looking back, I would say that that was the moment I became aware of it.

As the song says: "What are words worth?"