When I was in the 2nd grade, I was asked by my teacher to stand up and read a short story called ‘Enough is Enough’. Back in those days, in elementary school (primary school for those outside the US) students were given readers, books with stories designed to broaden vocabularies and help young mind figure out grammar and punctuation. I vaguely remember that the story was about some old guy who had grown tired of some noisy kids playing nearby. A geezer, a curmudgeon, if ever there was one. Back then I was a geezer in training. I was stubborn and full of myself. I thought I knew the world and firmly believed that anything I didn’t know I could figure out.
I stood, opened my book and read the title, only pronounced it, “ee-naw-gg is ee-naw-gg”, the /g/ being spewed forth as if I were clearing my throat. Giggles erupted from my classmates and my teacher (I don’t recall her name) corrected me, “No,” she said with a smile, “that’s Enough”, pronouncing the offending word as “enuff”.
I stood there, my young brain frantically analyzing the text before me. There were no /f/s in the word, how could that possibly be pronounced“enuff”?
Growing impatient, my teacher asked me to read it again. “Ee-naw-gg is Ee-naw-gg”, I replied.
More giggles accompanied by a stern stare from my teacher. “The word is pronounced, ‘enuff’, read it again,” she said in a tone that meant that I had better get it right this time. This is where I believe I established my path to curmudgeonhood.
I squared my shoulders, looked at my teacher through narrowed, serious eyes, and informed her that if that word was indeed ‘enough’ then it was spelled wrong.
She studied me for moment then asked me how I would spell it.
“E-N-U-F-F! Enuff,” I replied, confident that she would see the error in her ways and the obvious mistake the author of the story had made, thus validating my analysis.
She laughed. The entire classroom broke out in an uproar. I stood, defiant, though somewhat embarrassed and puzzled. I was right. I knew I was right. Why were they laughing? I looked at the words again and for the life of me I could not see how anyone could make that word sound like ‘enuff’.
I was a stubborn little snot back then. I was afflicted with the psyche that locks down on a thought and refuses to budge regardless of how much truth you throw at it. Years, experience and good luck have combined to mellow that particular fault in me. Unless you’re a complete idiot (which I hope I am not), just surviving as long as I have can chills a person out. Things that seem of monumental importance in youth, such as the proper spelling and enunciation of words, are no longer worth the humiliation when proven wrong. Experience has shown me that I can’t know or hope to know everything, and regardless of how smart I may think I am, there’s always someone smarter. It pays to shut up and listen. And it was sheer luck that the battles I chose to fight did not result in my death or serious harm. I was a different person at age 7.
“Quiet,” my teacher yelled and the laughter quickly trickled to snickers and whispers. I don’t fully recall all that I was thinking or feeling at that moment, but I’m sure that my small, brown face was flushed. Maybe my eyes had moistened as a maelstrom of emotions washed through me like a dark and furious summer storm. Perhaps my teacher saw the conflict and embarrassment on my face, which was likely as easily read and more easily interpreted than the text on the page in front of me. She stood and walked to the door of the classroom, opened it, then asked me to come into the hallway with her. She asked me. She didn’t command it. Unable to do anything but comply, I accompanied her.
She closed the door and looked down at me. I have no idea what she was thinking or what she thought of me, but she was silent for a moment, perhaps to give the emotional storm that raged inside me time to abate a bit. After several moments of silence, she said, “Vernon, I know that the word does not look like how it should be spelled or sound. There are plenty of words in our language that can trick us like that. Why it is that way, I don’t know. Maybe when you’re older you can find out. For now, just remember that when you see a word that ends with ‘ough’ pronounce it like ‘uff’. OK?”
Inside me, the dam that stubborness had built broke and tears drained away whatever ill-emotions I had left in me. I nodded my agreement.
“Wipe your face,” she instructed. I did so. “Stand here until you feel better. Take your time.”
She returned to the classroom where kids, left to their own devices, speculated, and not quietly, on what horrible punishment I would receive for daring to contradict the teacher. “Quiet,” she admonished as she closed the door, leaving me to ponder what had just happened.
As I think back on that moment several things become obvious, the most obvious of which was that I had been wrong. Language is a slippery beast. Even those immersed in a tongue since birth will find words and phrases that, at first blush, defy rational thinking. We learn to live with these idiosyncrasies and move on. The more adventurous among us will try to sluice out the origins of odd words and phrases. (It turns out that the ‘gh’ letter combination has origins in German, French, and English languages. It was the French, however, who introduced the ‘ough’ as an /f/ sound. Some believe the ‘gh’ stayed around for historical purposes, but I believe it was an insidious plot by some globe spanning secret organization to trip up 7 year olds trying to read a story. You decide which is true.)
What does any of this have to do with my time in Namibia? Not much. It’s just a moment I remembered and thought I’d write it down as I may not recall the moment again for another 60 or so years. That is, if I’m aware of myself in 60 or so years.
Here’s a gratuitous photo of a cat I recently met named Cat.
Cat is one of three cats that patrols my supervisor’s mother’s farm. I had the pleasure of staying there a couple of days last week and, as with everything I’ve encountered in my 2+ years here, it was an adventure. The farm in is in Oland, called so because nearly every region, town or borough in the area has a name that begin with /O/. I don’t know why that’s so and my supervisor couldn’t explain it either. (See? More language related mysteries.) I’ll have more about my recent Oland visit later. For now…