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Verbal Energy

Eavesdropping on the busyness of children

For a young child to announce just how much she has on her mind may be a milestone in life – alas!

By Ruth Walker / September 12, 2013

Grayson Scheub, center, cheers as he pits his Lego car against another child's during a demolition derby during a class at Build It in Perrysburg, Ohio, Feb. 14, 2013.

Katie Rausch/The Blade/AP/File

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I've never before lived on a street with so many young children as I do now. Some days the median age of the neighborhood seems to be about 6-1/2, and I wonder how there can be enough earning power there to pay all the bills.

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This summer – like, I suppose, a birder who moves into a new home and after a while learns to recognize new species around her – I've become familiar with the sounds of my young neighbors playing outside our adjacent houses.

Their sweet little voices float up to my office as I sit at my desk of a morning. There's often an elaborate "Good-bye, Daddy" ceremony that goes on for some minutes, until Daddy actually heads off to work and the children turn to whatever activity will occupy them.

I was struck the other day by the realization of just how literally I was eavesdropping on my young neighbors. An eavesdropper is "one who stands at walls or windows to overhear what's going on inside," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The kids were talking about having a sleepover. Or rather, one of them was trying to engage the other's attention on the subject. And then, after a couple of exchanges, one of the girls said somewhat sternly to the other, "I'm busy."

Suddenly I was 3 years old again, being put in my place with that very phrase, not by my endlessly patient parents but by Patty Lenz, my two-years-older best friend.

The Lenz family were our back-fence neighbors during my toddlerhood in small-town Wisconsin. Their house was the first place away from home I was able to get to on my own, and I experienced a fair number of childhood firsts there – including, if memory serves, hearing from Patty that she was too "busy" to focus on whatever I wanted her to focus on.

Busy goes back to the Old English bisig, which meant pretty much what our modern word does: continually employed or occupied. There was an earlier sense of anxiousness that "has drained from the word," as the Online Etymology Dictionary notes.

But the word, to my mind, retains a sense of entitlement.

People seem to feel their status as "busy" entitles them to be short with others or to order them around. That seemed to be the case with Patty, and with the little girl beneath my windows the other day.

From busy comes business, which originally meant the state of being busy.

But during the 14th century the meaning shifted, and the word came to refer to someone's line of work or occupation. The two-syllable pronunciation ("biz-ness" in place of "biz-ee-ness") came along during the 17th century.

By the 19th century, when Henry David Thoreau needed a word to mean what business had originally meant, he had to come up with busyness.

That simple, forceful utterance "I'm busy," whether out of the mouth of a 4-year-old or a 45-year-old, is a verbal marker that communicates, "I'm important," or at least "I think I'm important."

Getting to the point where it's possible to make that utterance seems to be a milestone in life that comes somewhere between the Terrible Twos and that venturing out into the world that is represented by the first day of school.

The business of America, if I may tweak a line from Calvin Coolidge, is busyness. And we do get started at a very tender age.

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