Cool," said my grandson approvingly when I showed him the chrysalis of a monarch butterfly. Was that all he could say to express wonder at such a miracle of rebirth? True, it seemed to be a cool pupa in that iridescent green sheath, beautifully marked with gold dots near the top where it was suspended from a milkweed stalk. A luminous mint-green shell, hot with the promise of new life in a body already beginning to stir, its folded wings faintly pulsing to break free of its prison. "Cool" was not the word, certainly. Couldn't this young man find one more fitting?
It was "cool" again when he dug into a bowl of homemade vegetable soup. On the second helping, he advanced "cool" to "nice." Nice? I thought of the carefully selected and prepared ingredients I'd put together to make it, including beef, potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, spinach, peppers, zucchini, celery, parsnips, herbs, and spices. "Some dozen vegetables, plus," I reminded him. "Nice," he responded, pushing back the empty bowl.
"Oh, wow!" he exclaimed when I presented the souvenir sweatshirt I'd brought from Ireland. "Totally cool." He held it against his chest. It was a long-sleeved, fleecy thing - anything but cool. Noting my raised eyebrows, he smiled. "Neat. Real neat."
This young man, a college graduate in his early 20s, is hardly different from his peers in the choice of descriptive adjectives.
The English language is a beautiful medium of expression. I reflect on the writers and poets who have used it to advantage in past centuries, and on their way, enriched it. What if William Wordsworth had glanced at a field of golden daffodils and simply grunted "neat-o"? How much more memorable his poem about that host of beauties "fluttering and dancing in the breeze," returning to him often as he rested "in pensive mood" as when his "heart with pleasure fills /And dances with the daffodils." I'm afraid "neat" just wouldn't fill the bill.
It's not just an age thing. Young and old alike, we're guilty of taking simple, complicated nature for granted. We latch on to "super" and "totally" as if they were the alpha and omega of our judgments, our appreciation of what's before us.
Not so William Blake, whose "Tyger Tyger, burning bright,/ In the forests of the night" still sends shivers up and down many spines. We come to life when he poses his conclusive question to that marvelous creature: "What immortal hand or eye,/ Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"
Why not, then, I challenged my very dear young grandson, find a few more fitting words to describe the world you're blessed to be alive in? He looked truly perplexed. "Like what?"
"We might begin with 'wonderful,' 'great,' 'grand,' 'amazing,' 'stupendous,' " I ventured, holding forth an old-fashioned pink rosebud. "Neat," he acknowledged. He bent over to smell it. "Oh, wow."
Because I truly have hope for the lad still, I forbore the urge to boot him out the back door. Instead, I went to a bookstore and bought him a copy of Roget's Thesaurus - the complete book of synonyms and antonyms. When I presented it to him later, the last of his birthday presents, he said: "0h wow, neat! What is it?"
My hopes were destined to rise and fall in the subsequent month, after which M. Roget was granted lodging on the bookshelf over my hip grandson's unused desk, to this day one more dust collector. Cool!
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society