“Do you even know what that means?”

I was a kid, visiting some relatives when she asked me. Her voice was sharp and loud, hard on my ears and dangerously low in pitch. In the week I’d stayed here, I’d learned that voice meant anger from my aunt. And she didn’t like me, so she was angry around me a lot.

“Do you even know what that means?”

I was five, I think. I know I was old enough to be in school, but young enough that when people praised me for something, my happy flaps weren’t punished yet. Old enough to know that not making eye contact was dangerous, young enough that I hadn’t yet figured out the forehead trick. I didn’t yet know I was different from the other kids, or that difference paints a target on your back, but I knew most of them didn’t like me.  And I loved books.

I looked at her, my words gone from my suddenly-sore throat. I focused on a hair sticking out of a mole on her chin. It bobbed as her mouth moved.

“Answer me! Do you even know what that word means?!”

I knew she was angry. Didn’t know why. What’s wrong with the word exceptional? It’s a nice word. Grandma had said that you shouldn’t say anything if you couldn’t say something nice, but exceptional was nice. Why was she yelling? I didn’t have time to ponder it. I knew that grown-ups got angry if I took time to figure them out. So I nodded silently that I knew what it meant.

“What does it mean?”

I stared. Opened my mouth to say, really good. What came out instead was, “I-I-Iunno.”

“I-I-I – Talk proper! If you looked it up in the dictionary, what would it say?!”

I shrugged. I didn’t know how to use a dictionary yet. Didn’t know that I should. Dad said it was easier to figure out what words meant by the context, which I thought meant the things around it, but I admitted to myself I only knew context’s meaning by context, and felt a stab of guilt for breaking a rule I didn’t know existed. And I stared at the hair. It started to bob again.

“You shouldn’t use words you don’t understand,” she snapped, her voice rising. I covered my ears with my hands.

I wanted to protest, I did understand. Just didn’t know what it said in the dictionary. Didn’t know I should. One of my hands was pried loose in a grip strong enough to hurt.

“Listen! Don’t ignore me!” My arm shook with enough strength to nearly throw me off the couch. “You might think it makes you look smart to use those big words. But it doesn’t. It makes you look dumb.”

She punctuated the statement by throwing me backwards into the couch cushions.

I didn’t understand. My vision wavered as tears filled my burning eyes. I stammered unintelligibly, trying to get out an apology. A dictionary landed in my lap. I flinched belatedly at the motion of it falling past my face.

“Here. Next time you use a word, make sure you know what it means.”

The floor of the old house shook and creaked as she left the room. With shaking hands, I opened the book. Wiped my eyes.

And began to read.

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7 thoughts on ““Do you even know what that means?”

  1. autisticook says:

    This is very moving and very recognisable. I still don’t understand why people get so angry about knowledge.

    • ischemgeek says:

      This is slightly fictionalized (I don’t remember exactly what word set her off, for example), but a very similar incident was actually what got me started on reading the dictionary, which in turn led to my special interest in etymology. So in a way, I’m kind of grateful to her – she unintentionally sparked the interest that let me handle idioms and slang.

      • autisticook says:

        Slightly fictionalised is good when it allows you to convey the impact instead of the actual content of what happened.

        Dictionaries are awesome. I’m so happy for you that you got one thrown at you. 😛

      • ischemgeek says:

        I am, too, actually.

        If for no other reason than because for the next two years, I’d recite verbatim the dictionary definition whenever she asked that, and then two other dictionary definitions, followed by the etymology… and usually I was getting started on related words when she would tell me to STFU. 😛

  2. autisticook says:

    Oh god, we’re so autistic. Being all cheerful and seeing the upsides of dictionarial abuse. 😛

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