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Possumhaw: Professor Wordsmith


Shannon Bardwell



"God wove a web of loveliness, of clouds and stars and birds, but made not anything at all so beautiful as words."  


Anna Hempstead Branch, American poet (1875-1937) 




There was a professor at The W whose name was Smith. Professor David Smith put a great emphasis on words. In fact, he terrorized students with the promise of brutal punishments in the form of bad grades if one misspelled, or misused, or placed little value in vocabulary.  


On the first day of class, Professor Smith would deliver a soliloquy deliberately choosing obscure words and then asked for comments. The silence was deafening. 


"If you don't know words, then you are severely handicapped in the world," he'd explain. 


It was his class, the fear of brutal punishments in the form of bad grades, and of being severely handicapped in the world that heightened my interest in words.  


Two recent incidences brought Professor Smith and his words to mind. When Joe Long, my young friend and pastor of True Vine Missionary Baptist Church, enthusiastically shared that his Bible study was "the bomb," I was confused. His expression was one of ecstasy, but the Bible study had bombed?  


Joe laughed and assured me the Bible study went very well. He said "the bomb" meant it was great. What once was a disaster is now great. 


Then there's the word "hack," used in an unusual way. No definition in the Merriam-Webster seemed to fit. A recent publication advertised "Super Snack Hacks." All the definitions I found had to do with computer hacking or referred to a person doing an inferior job. Even a run through the Urban Dictionary and the Online Slang Dictionary produced nothing. 


Finally, I looked on where I found a meaningful definition of hack: A procedure or way of doing something that demonstrates cleverness or ingenuity, a short cut, an efficient way to achieve a goal or desire, not in the normal way. 


Well, there you go. Quora noted the word "hack" seemed to attract reader attention. It did mine. As did "DIY," which means "Do it yourself," which for the longest I thought was a women's clothing line. 


There's "phishing" and "phubbing." Phishing is the attempt through electronic means to acquire personal, sensitive information by fraud. Phubbing is combining the words phone and snubbing. You've been phubbed if your companion spends more time on the phone than paying attention to you.  


You might think these crazy new words can be blamed on the internet or media or advertising, but not so. Mitford M. Mathews, author of "American Words" (1959), says: A living language reflects the mental and physical activities of those who use it. As people accomplish more and more in all walks of life, their language changes so as always to be abreast of their achievements. The first settlers in this country and those who came after them could not take care of all their linguistic needs by giving new meanings to old words. They had to find many entirely new terms. 


Shannon Bardwell's column is a regular feature of The Dispatch. Email reaches her at [email protected]


Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.


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