Halloween brings an annual party thrown by friends.* I picked up a pair of horns and a sparkly mask at Target, and in the thrift shop I found the perfect red gown to go with it. The gown is clearly a costume (glitter, stretch, lumpy hems), but it had a vaguely medieval flair to it and looked all right.
In my long red gown last night, I waited for the city bus in the dark, holding my horns and my mask in my hand. No one commented on my outfit on the brightly-lit bus, so I assumed it looked passable and not too outrageous. At my friend’s door, I put on my horns and my mask, and the attendees greeted me with admiring cries. A friend (a very nice friend, who meant it as an admiring comment) looked me up and down and said one word. Just one word.
You know those mind maps where you make a circle in the center of the page, write one word in it, and then draw lines from it to show connections? That word grew centipede legs right then and there.* And I’ve been thinking about the word since last night off and on, and about words like that.
“Articulate” is one of my favorites, containing so much surprise, and so much assumption about the person using it. Oh, and “intelligent.” A young man once remarked with astonishment on my “intelligence” and does not know how close he came to getting punched, because I have a doctorate and thirty years experience in the topic I was discussing with him.***
I’ve been trying to think of other good words. “Bourgeois” labels everything in the history, neighborhood, family, education, and mindset of the person who utters it, but it is meant as an insult and the kind of word I’m thinking of should be a compliment that betrays everything about the person using it and relatively little about the person it is addressed to.
Any words like that you can think of off the top of your head?
*My husband loathed the holiday as a child, and does not like parties, but he thinks he does, and he likes his friends. He asks me to go, and then he has a bad time and wants to leave early. We have been married over 40 years and part of the reason why is that we have not actually killed one another yet.
**The centipede legs that sprouted: 1. I am wearing a costume. I don’t wear costumes in order to look slimmer. 2. Why do I wear costumes? in order to look ridiculous, glamorous, funky, or funny. 3. Oh, yes, my friend struggles with his own weight, I forgot. 4. I don’t need slimming. 5. Why do you sound so surprised? 6. I’m in the invisibility stage of a woman’s life, how odd to be noticed. 7. Yeah, I mostly wear jeans and sweaters. 8. My mother’s worst insult, the one that burst out of her when she couldn’t help herself, was “fat.” 9. The word “slimming” as a verb first appeared in the 1930s, so what is it doing here in your mouth? You’re not old enough. 10. Why was my first reaction to laugh at you?
*** Luckily, very few people realize how close they are to getting punched around me. That’s partly because I taught middle school for a very long time and have perfected the appearance of amiable cluelessness. Everything goes over my head, really it does. Really.