Welcome back to Word Nerd Wednesday, where I geek out over words and tell you quirky stories to help remember them. Today’s word is one of my favorites, so let’s get right to the story.
Emile Stewart is seven years old. On his eighth birthday, he’ll get a fancy new bike. But his birthday feels ages away and all his friends are riding around the neighborhood on their bikes while he watches. It’s like torture. And then, one day, his parents wake him up and tell him, “Emile, you’re eight!” And with those words, all his waiting and frustration is over! Those magic words make everything better. “Emile, you’re eight” = ameliorate (uh-MEEL-yor-ate), which means to improve or make more tolerable.
Why do I like this word? For one thing, it’s a positive word. It’s focused on making things better. But mostly, because it rolls right off the tongue, basically does a somersault in your mouth. No, seriously. Try it out. It starts in the middle, to the front with the M, rolling to the back all the way up to through R, then it returns to the front to end on the T. I guess you could say it rolls like the wheel of a bike. 😉
So there you have it. Ameliorate. Why not give it a spin this week?
Like many people in this country, when I was in high school, I had to take the SAT. Oh that hefty, terrifying, life-determining monster, the sorting hat for colleges, the most important test I’d ever take. Pick up an SAT prep book and you’ll find any number of helpful techniques, tips to create a savvy test-taker. I didn’t have many of those books. (They’re expensive, people!) But I do recall one technique I learned in my English class.
It was the power of story.
I’m lucky; I’ve always had a pretty good memory. But what makes my memory even better is the addition of meaning. That’s true for everyone. It’s not just me, it’s psychology. (That rhyme was unintentional, I swear.) How we mentally sort and store factual information is different from how we process personal or creative information. And someone at an SAT prep company evidently realized that.
There were two word stories in particular that got stuck in my brain, so I’ll show you how this fun technique works.
In the first story, there’s a letter that arrives at a postal processing center. It’s lacking a full address. It’s simply labeled “A Sid, U.S.” Most people would give up on it. But one particular postal worker dedicates himself to finding the intended recipient for this letter, staying late and going through massive lists of people named Sid. Incredibly hard-working, wouldn’t you say? And how appropriate, since assiduous means hard-working.
The second story is about a woman named Val. Val is very pregnant and, as tends to happen, she goes into labor. She calls an ambulance. They arrive and load her up. They’re about to leave when she tells them not to, that she wants to wait for her husband who’s nearly there. They stay. But moments later (probably when the next contraction hits), Val changes her mind. Get her to the hospital now. But not moments later, she changes her mind again. How can she leave without her husband?
So Val in ambulance = ambivalence. Contrary to popular usage, it’s not a synonym for apathy. It’s easy to see how it can be confusing because both result in indecision, but the indecision from ambivalence is the result of caring too much, not too little, of being torn between opposite concepts instead of not caring. I’ve always remembered that because of this story. Val isn’t apathetic. She’s not all “yeah, whatever, we can go or not.” She’s seriously torn between two options.
They’re silly stories, sure. But they obviously worked, because I remember them even now, a decade and a half later. And it’s a technique that served me well when I later had to face down the SAT’s scarier, older sibling: the GRE.
“Yes okay, that’s all very nice, Halee, but why are you telling us this?”
Because I love words—big, fancy ones, and strange, quirky ones, and I think everyone should have the chance to expand their vocabularies. That’s a good enough reason, right?
Okay, fine. It’s also because there’s a super thin line between sounding educated and sounding pretentious, and I’d rather stay on the less face-punchy side of that line. But I figure, the more people who know and use five-dollar words, the easier it will be for me to use them without sounding pretentious. Yes. I’m selfish like that.
So if you want to expand your vocabulary or impress your friends or just read some quirky little stories, you’ll find me here, every Wednesday for the next few weeks, wielding the power of story like a giant word nerd.
It all started with an eight-year-old kid. I was a eighteen-year-old camp counselor at an outdoor center and he was one of my campers. Let’s call him Evan.
Evan had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, something my co-counselor and I knew because one of us took him to the infirmary for his medication every morning. Evan was very aware of his own diagnosis. He used to say, “if I don’t get my meds, I’m gonna go crazy!”
It broke my heart. I don’t know where he learned that idea, whether it came from his parents or other kids at school. But somewhere along the way, he learned that “crazy” referred to mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.
One afternoon, we were playing a simple game, probably killing a few minutes between activities. We were working our away around the group, talking about things that made us unique, any fun detail that set us apart. A junior counselor talked about how her ears stuck out and it made her look a little like a chipmunk. I talked about how I never crawled as a baby, but scooted around instead.
Evan said, “I’m bipolar!” That’s the detail he thought made him unique, that defined him. That without his meds, he’d go “crazy.”
This eight-year-old thought “crazy” was lingering just around the corner.
I didn’t realize it until later, but that’s the moment I started to have a problem with that word: crazy. As a society, we’ve known for a couple decades now that using the term to describe people with mental illness is disrespectful, even harmful.
But we still use that word in other forms.
We say “life has been crazy lately” or “such crazy weather we’re having” or “don’t do anything crazy.” It’s easy to throw it around without thinking. I know I’ve done it in the past. It’s such a common part of our lexicon, it comes without a thought.
On one hand, there can be power in reclaiming a word and diminishing its stigma. But that would require severing it from its original roots. If you dig deeper, we’re still using it in the same way, to refer to aberrant behavior. Life has been out of control, is what we mean when we say it’s been “crazy.” We’re saying the weather has been abnormal. We’re telling our friends not to do anything wild or risky.
Even today, the word is hinting at the behavior it described decades and centuries ago, back when it was a label slapped on anyone who didn’t fit the norms of society. Back when it was used as an excuse to imprison and abuse people who needed help.
If you dig into the etymology of the word, it originated around 1580 and meant “full of cracks.” This was around the same time asylums were being established to hold such “cracked” people. The word then expanded to mean “diseased, sickly, of unsound mind.” And once it was attached to a human being, it was impossible to escape the label.
I will alway believe words are powerful. I’m a writer. Of course I think that. I know it’s impractical to research the etymology and history of every word we use. But some words cut more deeply than others. Some words carry a well-known history with them. And when a word with such a negative past lands on the shoulders of an eight-year-old child, it’s beyond time to bury that word.
Some words don’t deserve to exist in modern society. For me, this is one of them. I’m done with “crazy.”
I’m not someone who backs down from a challenge. Truth is, sometimes I even go after it, smack it in the face and go “whatcha gonna do??” So when my husband came home from the doctor a few months ago and told me he had to avoid the most common food allergens for the next five to six months . . . well, I’ll be honest, first I thought about cheese.
I’m Southern, okay? There is no main dish that cannot be improved by the addition of cheese. I knew that would be the hardest thing for him to give up. And for me to cook without. I mean, when you remove dairy, eggs, gluten, shellfish, soy, and nuts, you’ve basically just got . . . meat.
But fine. Okay. I’m smart and resourceful. I’m an awesome wife who does my best to make life easier for both of us. (I’m also unbelievably humble, can you tell?) Once I stopped thinking about cheese, I began brainstorming foods, doing research to augment my list. Thank goodness for the internet. There’s basically no subject I can’t research for hours. I never get bored or tired of the monotony.
So I dug deep and compiled lists of meals. Main dishes weren’t so hard—steak and potatoes with green beans, chicken soup with white beans and veggies. But snacks? Breakfasts? We wandered the aisles of our fanciest local grocery store, checking ingredients to see what options we had.
“Hey this is gluten-free, no soy, no nuts, no milk . . . oh. Eggs. Dang it.” Repeat every possible variation of that and you’ll have a good idea of our experience.
And then I discovered the Enjoy Life brand. (Cue the heavenly, hallelujah music.) Surprisingly, their stuff also tastes good. I could eat their lentil chips alllll day. And they have an all-purpose flour blend that has basically saved me from spiraling into frustration and despair.
So now I keep my husband supplied with a steady supply of muffins or banana bread for breakfast. (Told you I’m an awesome wife.) And after reading the allergen guides for nearly every restaurant in a twenty-mile radius, I found a few places we can eat at. I have a list of favorite websites where I can find recipes. We’re making it work. Because that’s what you do when life throws a curveball: you swerve. And I can swerve with the best of them.
The truth is, having to avoid specific ingredients is pretty minor when you consider the struggles of so many other people. But I have tons of respect for people dealing with severe allergies. It’s not a simple thing to be on guard with every bite, constantly assessing potential meals for something that could make you sick. And multiply that stress by a million if you’re a parent of someone with allergies.
The great thing is, there are so many resources available, ones that have made my life so much easier. In case it’s helpful to anyone else, I’m sharing my favorite allergy-friendly resources:
Sarah Bakes Gluten Free This may be one of the best recipe sites out there. The muffins! The breads! And I make them using the Enjoy Life all-purpose flour blend that I think is pretty similar to the blend she uses.
The Neat Egg Substitute It’s a bit pricy, but worth it. I used this for the first time a few days ago and while it’s a weird consistency at first, it definitely improved the structure of the muffins I made.
Enjoy Life Like I said, this stuff is awesome. Snack bars, flour mixes, lentil chips. You can probably find some of their products at your local grocery store. But if not, Amazon’s got you covered. I can personally vouch for the quality of their snickerdoodles. And those garlic parmesan lentil chips . . . it’s hard to believe they’re dairy-free.
If you’re no stranger to food allergies, feel free to share your favorite resources too!