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ANOTHER DAY IN THE COUNTRY: The Meaning of a Word

© Another Day in the Country

Every decade, there are words and catchphrases that come and go in our vocabulary. Technology seems to dictate the meaning of new words these past few years with a “bite” meaning something beyond what our teeth do and “rams” having nothing at all to do with sheep. “Twitter” is no longer equated to birds and “memory” loss isn’t necessarily a condition of the human brain.

New words are cropping up all the time and old words fade into the background. I was remembering when my girls were young and they stayed with their grandparents, alone, for the first time. We were on our way to a convention, chock full of meetings, meetings, meetings — no place for a 5- and 9-year-old — so I asked Mom if the girls could stay with them for a few days on the farm. My mother reluctantly agreed.

At the time, I couldn’t understand her reluctance. I mean, my girls were well behaved, they loved being at the farm, my mother had raised two girls herself, what could be the problem? It wasn’t until I was a grandmother myself that I really understood. There’s a huge difference between caring for your own children and watching over someone else’s child. In every home there is a different system afoot, and adjustments have to be made to accommodate the shift, right down to the words used.

The girls had not fully understood that difference — even in vocabulary, things you say and don’t say between one house and another. When we got back to the farm, my oldest daughter said to me, “Don’t you ever do that again!” meaning leave them with their grandparents. “All grandma knows is work, work, work,” she continued with hands on her hips. This was her first time in a different system without her mother as buffer, smoothing the way, explaining things.

Her sister looked up at me and said, “And what does ‘sassy’ mean?” I had to laugh. How had I managed to raise children who didn’t know the meaning of that word? It was, after all, one of my mother’s favorite phrases when I was growing up, “Don’t be sassy,” but my girls didn’t have a clue. They knew what it meant to be disrespectful. They understood what it was to be “a smart mouth,” but “sassy” and “talking back” were words they didn’t quite get.

“Of course we ‘talk back’ Mommy,” said my oldest, “isn’t that what people do?” Well, it wasn’t what kids did in my mother’s era with the motto of “children should be seen and not heard.”

You don’t have to go across country or even to a new country to find myself at a loss for understanding words. In every community, there are phrases used, peculiar to that place, formed in the communal experience and they may or not really mean what they sound like.

For instance, when I answer the phone and someone says, “Watcha doing?” It always startles me just a little when someone says that. Do they really want to know what I’m doing? Are they worried they took me away from something more important than answering the phone? Because it is perfectly obvious what I’m doing — I am answering the phone, that’s what I’m doing. It’s taken me awhile to figure out that it’s just an opening statement and no one really expects me to answer accurately.

“It’s a little like the phrase, “Hi, how are you.” No one really wants you to answer that one either, unless you say “Fine,” which you may or may not be.

Then there are those comments meant to change the subject — floater phrases to take you from one conversational shore to the next like, “You’ve got to be kidding,” which obviously is no joke. Or the optimistic, “It could be worse,” to the person whose just suffered some catastrophe. And we’re busy imagining all the bad things that could happen to put us out of our misery.

I also have to chuckle at the things people say to someone who is sick or in the hospital, “How are you feeling?,” is a standard. Really? You know how they are feeling, or they probably wouldn’t be in the hospital. Ah, it’s another day in the country and I have to remember to just say, “It’s good to see you,” because it is. And then, maybe hand them flowers and smile — worth a thousand words and understood worldwide!

Last modified March 18, 2015

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