A Warm and Wordy Welcome From a Playful Seattle Sign

A SIMPLE post, about five feet tall, held the wooden sign. At the top was painted WORD OF THE WEEK. Below this, a strip of white paper had been tacked. On it, someone had printed with a marker in a fresh, spontaneous style: tergiversate. That was all. One could ignore or enjoy it. The sign stood between curb and sidewalk at the corner of a residential block in Wallingford, a Seattle community through which I was traveling by bus in search of a new apartment. The words were large enough to read easily as we passed.

Tergiversate. I quickly wrote it down. I'd look it up when I got home. Was this a game someone offered for neighborhood amusement? What fun! It might be a friendly place in which to settle.

Tergiversate. Writing to a Manhattan friend who is a college professor of children's literature and an accomplished poet, I included it. "Tergiversate," she quickly wrote back. It was the first word in her letter and seemed to pop off the page like a Fourth of July sparkler punctuating the sky. Send more Seattle big words, she urged. Her enthusiasm eased a certain uneasiness about myself when I became so excited about a word game.

Tergiversate had a life, an energy, like the word Ocracoke, which I once heard children chanting outside my window as they marched around their yard. "Oc-ra-coke, Oc-ra-coke." We lived in New York state; Ocracoke was a town in North Carolina. Where had they heard about it? Wherever, they liked the sound so much they made it the capital of their play.

I tried to separate enjoyment of the Seattle word game from my judgment about the neighborhood as a possible place to live.

What if I moved there, only to find the sign had disappeared? Would it change my view of the community?

Yes! To me, that sign radiated warmth and welcome.

I rode past it a week or so later. The new word: satyagraha. After that: bedizen. Did bedizen have something to do with feeling bedazzled? Other star words were: gallimaufry, deliquesce, and snollygoster.

Each time I acquired a new mysterious word, I rushed home to check the exact meanings and origin. Did my keen interest indicate a past language deprivation? I wondered. I'd written many television and radio programs, including a series for the very young. Simple words were often best in broadcasting, and could be eloquent, as in the late Joe Raposo's lyric: "Sing sing a song sing out loud sing out strong Almost every word in that moving song was one syllable.

For a long while I had considered most big words to be cumbersome, like ornate furniture. Stuffy. There were, of course, exceptions with lilting fluidity like tintinnabulation, onomatopoeia, and serendipity. And longer words did have a presence, weight, shape; you could almost hold one in your hand, slip it into a pocket, later offer it to a friend - yet still keep it. I decided to give big words more space in my life.

The day I discovered oneiric was the Word of the Week, I ventured off the bus and jotted the number of the corner house, which was the closest one to the sign.

I wanted to send a query. In which of the one- and two-story homes closely placed might the Director of Words live? Was it a he? Or she? Young, or maybe retired? Inclined to seclusion, or gregarious with big words tumbling out in every conversation like, "Put aside your paddywhacks and snickersnees, so we can speak pacifistically"?

Arriving home, after looking up oneiric, I composed a note of appreciation for the words and a few questions about their selector. Might a club for word buffs exist thereabouts?

And was I exhibiting too much chutzpah, I asked myself.

Probably. Nevertheless, I slipped the letter into an envelope marked, "Re: Word of the Week." Perhaps that would keep my questions from being discarded before read.

Several weeks passed. No reply. I consoled myself with the fact I'd found other evidence of Seattle word play. A bakery was featuring the French phrase of the week written on a blackboard behind the counter. The week I stopped by it was, Une bete noire, and the translation, "A pet peeve, a black beast."

Soon after, there it was in my mailbox, a personal letter from the present wordkeepers, a University of Washington assistant professor in computer science and his wife. They were offering the game in the absence of another university professor who had started it, but was abroad.

The game had been received with mixed reviews from the community. Some people admitted that they felt outsmarted; others expressed appreciation and attached notes with word suggestions to the sign.

A few neighbors wondered if the words represented an irresistible need on the part of the professors to teach. No, they insisted. It was all in fun. They tried to choose words that reflected the times. When a daughter had entered kindergarten, the Word of the Week had been abecedarian.

And further, any words I'd like to suggest were welcome. A delightful challenge.

Maybe I'd offer them clishmaclaver or imponderabilia or ....

I was sorting through words like a lady searching her closet for the most fascinating dress she had to wear to a ball. It reminded me of another game a young family member of mine played.

When visiting, she chose the largest pan her tiny hands could claim from a low kitchen shelf, carried it to the living room to stand in and sail the vast sea of rug. Her boat seemed more satisfying than any toy I might buy for her.

Improvised games. Created with what was at hand, like kitchenware and words. All the sweeter for the human touch.

"Sing" by Joe Raposo, copyright 1971, used by permission of Jonico Music, Inc.

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