Where Hors d’oeuvres and Harelips Overlap on a Venn Diagram

As an English-teacher, I love words and thinking about where they come from and seeing how they have changed over time or been combined to create new meanings or even morphed into something entirely different from where they started.  (Okay, so I am not an English teacher at this exact moment, but there is a part of me, that no matter where this Foreign Service sidewalk takes me, will still get excited about the correct spelling of “a lot,” will silently thank each and every Facebook poster who knows the difference between “their/there/they’re,” “your/you’re” and “its/it’s,” will still enjoy an evening of editing a paper for a friend or former student and will still feel the need to obsessively recommend books to anyone who will listen.)

I loved nearly everything I got to teach in Marsing: the Edgar Allan Poe, the expository writing, and The Outsiders and A Christmas Carol. But, I especially loved the vocabulary, especially since I transitioned into a vocabulary program based upon Greek/Latin word parts, rather than individual words. I found each word part I could teach the kids opened the door to a whole slew of new words, rather than just the one that was on the list. Plus, each time we talked about these roots, I was blown away by connections the kids made to words I hadn’t thought of, but really did fit the pattern. This method of doing vocabulary was also great for my kids for whom Spanish was their first language, as the cognates were numerous. But enough pedagogy…just know, English teaching is where it is at!

You would think after studying English and literature for four years at Brigham Young University and then teaching middle school English in Marsing, Idaho for eight years, taking graduate level classes about teaching language arts and then volunteering with Peace Corps to teach English to students in China who would soon be teachers themselves, I would have a decent grasp of the English language at its most basic level. And I do. Most of the time. Or at least sometimes.

But, there are moments when I flabbergast myself with simple words and phrases that I thought I knew/understood and then suddenly a light bulb with roughly the wattage of the sun comes on and I realize how clueless I am sometimes!

On occasion, I  can chalk the problem up to the fact that I read a lot and, at times, become familiar with a word on a visual level, which isn’t a word commonly used in our daily spoken language. When this happens, in my head I think I know the pronunciation of the word and I definitely have a definition of it, but somewhere the link between what my brain thinks that word is and what the rest of the English-speaking world knows it is, don’t connect.

For example: hors d’oeuvres- Yes, I know these are tasty little snacks available at fancy parties, often miniature versions of normal foods, speared on toothpicks so that the eater is as jolly as the Green Giant when consuming these bitty bites. The problem is, for some reason that concept and the above word never collided in my head, and with my lack of French training, I just pronounced that word the way it looked-“oars-de-vores.”  (Hey, I have enough world language training to know that the “h” is silent! What more do you people want from me?!)

So maybe I am just not enough of a Fancy Nancy to have such hoity-toity lexicon.

This whole dilemma comes to a forefront because a few nights ago I nearly fell out of bed as a giant glowing-sky-orb-sized realization hit me while I was reading my book and stumbled across a reference to having a “harelip.” Of course, I know what a harelip looks like. I have been sufficiently guilt-plagued by those late-night commercials of the starving children in Africa, who if I gave less than a dollar a day, would be miraculously cured of their distended stomachs, fly-covered orifices and every other inequity heaped upon them. (Or, half that money would go to cover the overhead costs and advertising for the parent agency and the kids would still struggle to subsist on a daily basis. Not that I am cynical about after-midnight calls for humanitarian aid or anything…)

The thing is, I was reading The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna. (This is a fabulous book, by the way! It has yet to make it into my Book Musings, as I am a bit behind on those right now, but suffice it to say, if you have a chance, pick up this 1975 novel-length allegory, translated from Finnish to English. It is well worth your time.)

But back to my curious lack of basic English understanding.

So there I was, sprawled on the bed with my trusty e-reader, just getting in to this story about a journalist and photographer traveling together, when the news-reporting duo accidentally hit a baby rabbit that is in the road. The reporter, getting out to check on the poor animal, makes a comment about his tiny nose twitching above his little hare lip. His what?!? His hair lip?! Of course! Like Thor’s
thunder-bringing hammer, a connotative smack-down rained down upon my brain! Those poor kids in Africa (and elsewhere) born with a split lip- it looks like a bunny’s lip! Why had I never put two and two together?

I can only figure that this case was much like that of the hors d’oeuvres, but in reverse. I know the word “harelip” and exactly what it means, but maybe I have just never registered it when I saw it
written. In my ever-wandering brain, it was spelled “hair-lip” and I could never figure out what follicles of keratin had to do with a facial disfiguration. And now, it all becomes clear. A harelip- as in resembling the split upper lip of the cute, fuzzy, hippity-hop mammal. How had I never seen through Alice’s looking glass, at her giant white rabbit and realized such a simple association existed?

Both reading and writing are slices of my daily life pie here in China, being much better stress relievers than a trip to apartment complex’ not-so-high-tech gym and the 70% humidity that currently ensconces each pilgrimage beyond my front door, would be.  Instead of giving my lungs and legs a run for their money though, I give my rattled brain chance to unwind the various knots created by the language I’ve been speaking for thirty-ish years.

You may be crafty and slightly mysterious, but I’m on to you now, English language!!

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