Happy New Year!…from Joe McKay’s “Crazy About Words”

Since 2006, Joe McKay and his "Crazy About Words" class in the Lifetime Learning Program at Peconic Landing in Greenport, NY, have been supporters of the Dictionary Project. Their first year with the project, he explained their interest this way, "Our Lifetime Learning Group of seniors never cease to be amazed at the power of the dictionary to teach and entertain. We feel we are naturals to support the Dictionary Project." They started with one school in Greenport that year, and now Joe and the students in the "Crazy About Words" class visit seven schools in eastern Long Island with dictionaries and a presentation that shares their love of learning with the children.

In addition to teaching the class, Joe publishes a monthly "Crazy About Words" column, which he distributes by e-mail. If you share his love of language, you can receive his columns by writing to crazyaboutwords@gmail.com.

Here is this month’s column:

Joe McKay’s “Crazy About Words” … toasting our language since 2003!

It still impresses me that the 100,000 plus words in my dictionary (2006 pages in the American Heritage, 4th. Edition) are each constructed simply from some combination of letters derived from our 26-letter alphabet. From aardvark to zyzzyva, we have managed to create the most expressive language imaginable, the toolbox of writers, poets, and all who use and appreciate words.

The beginning of a new year puts many of us in a reflective mood. As that mood extends to my writing this column, I wonder what single word I might select as my “most important word in the English language.” Looking at a smorgasbord of candidates, I quickly realize that I have long regarded “attitude” as basic to just about everything in life.

It’s a great word that originally had a physical meaning, the “position of something relative to some other physical thing” (e.g., an aircraft or a ballet dancer assumes an attitude). It was later adopted by our ancestor-wordsmiths looking for a word to describe a “mental or emotional position relative to some aspect of life” (e.g., a person has a positive or negative attitude about money).

Because we all have the power to wake up each day and assume the attitude we choose, and so set the course for “the first day of the rest of our lives,” I rank it my #1 word.

Viktor Frankl, Dachau survivor, when asked upon liberation in 1945 to describe his experience, simply said, “I learned a lot about myself in these past three years.” In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he says that “the ultimate human freedom is to choose one’s attitude.”

Looking at the word, and focusing on the fact that it begins with “a,” the abecedarian in me comes out, and I reach for a “b” and a “c” word that will fit into this New Year’s reflection.

"Bittersweet" is a nice compound word with a yin and yang quality to it. The strong, fast-growing bittersweet vine chokes its host bushes and trees in growing season, but decorates their bare branches in winter with its glowing red berries encased in orange. Look up on a sunny day in the winter woods, or gather pieces of the vine to bring indoors, and you’ll appreciate the -sweet end of this word.

Frankl’s point was that many life experiences, even the toughest, are bittersweet, but we can learn and grow as human beings from each of them if we have an attitude of openness and an interest in learning about ourselves relative to Life.

"Circumstances", a Latin word meaning the things that surround us, need not dictate our attitude. Attitude comes from within us, is self-determined. Imagine you have only six pennies. Are you poor? Circumstances might say so. But you give two away with generosity in your heart, then buy a piece of bread with a third, consciously savoring the taste of it. You are rich.

Cheers! Here’s to a rich and rewarding 2011.

Comments and suggestions welcome to: crazyaboutwords@gmail.com.