Philomath Express: Oblique Angles logo

I could hear the phone ringing inside as soon as I got out of my car. I grabbed the bags of groceries and ran to unlock the front door. Fumbling with bags, keys and purse, I dropped one of the bags. Naturally it was the bag with the dozen eggs, currently broken.

I unlocked the door, tossed the remaining bag on the counter and picked up the phone. A ding indicated I had a message. I typed in my secret code to open my voice mail, and this is exactly what the caller said: “Call me. I’ve got great news!!!!”

Since the caller didn’t leave any identifying information and I didn’t recognize her voice, what was I supposed to do? What if it was Publishers Clearing House calling to say I had won the $2.5 million sweepstakes? Oh well, easy come, easy go.

Why, I wondered, did I often find myself in situations where language — or lack thereof — makes absolutely no sense?

To help me make sense of the world, my dad had taught me to read early. We made splendid progress until we came across those devilish words containing silent letters: I would say “ga-nat,” “ga-naw,” “ga-nome,” “dum-ba and dum-ber,” and my personal favorite “ke-nick-ke-nacks.” He patiently explained that silent letters aren’t pronounced. “Just ignore them. Pretend they’re not there.”

“Why can’t we just get rid of them?” I asked.

“Because we’re not lexicographers.”

“Say what?” I asked.

“The guys in charge of words that go in the dictionary.”

“Well, they must be ‘ke-nuckleheads.’”

I vowed I would become the voice for silent letters everywhere. They would be silent no longer. My parents even agreed to voice the silent letters, not because they believed it was the right thing to do, but to shut me up.

I remember once when we went out to dinner, I said, “Mom, please pass me the butter ke-nife?” By the way, note my impeccable manners.

“Of course, dear. Here’s the ke-nife.”

A pearl-wearing lady with lacquered helmet hair approached our table.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I couldn’t help but overhear part of your conversation. You said ‘ke-nife.’ The ‘k’ is silent. We just say ‘nife.’”

She patted my head as if I were a Shih Tzu. “Your native language isn’t English, is it? Where are you from?”

“Berkeley, California,” I said.

“Oh, that explains everything,” she said. She patted my head again and rejoined her dinner companions.

“A butter ke-nife wouldn’t have done the job,” I groused. “I would have needed a ‘sword’ to take care of that one.” Please note it is the “w” that is silent, which is rare.

Even smart folks make common language gaffes. My friend Bunny, an astrophysicist, called and told me she had misplaced her telescope. How, I wondered, do you misplace a telescope? “I searched everywhere,” she said. “I finally found it in the very last place I looked.”

Do some people continue to look for an item even after it’s been found? Who are these people? And how do they navigate through life? Awk! Another ke-nucklehead!

I often read things wrong. I assume that comes with my failing eyesight, but Gary suggests it might be my failing brain. There was a time when I had to commute from San Jose to Palo Alto. I traveled to and fro on the Bayshore Freeway, passing Moffett Field, a military-civilian airfield. Outside the base, a sign was posted that I read aloud every time I passed it: “Please pick up uninformed personnel.” How dare they treat their employees with such disrespect?

Gary was with me one day when I read that demeaning sign. His response was totally inappropriate as he laughed like a mad man. “Why are you laughing?” I snarled. How would you feel if you were one of those uninformed personnel?”

“Sweetheart, it doesn’t say “uninformed;” It says “uniformed.”

Apparently, I, too, just fell head-first into the ke-nucklehead canyon.

It comes as no real surprise to me that our son, the acorn, hasn’t fallen far from the mother tree. He was a toddler when he announced that his Tonka toy truck tires had excellent “gription.” I don’t have to give you a definition as its meaning is obvious.

Later, he added “this’s” to his working vocabulary. An example would be: “That’s your camel. This’s mine.”

He also has fine observational skills. We were driving when he let out a whoop of delight. “Look, there’s a garage sale up the street.”

“What’s so special about that?” I asked.

“They’re selling garages!”

I looked, and he was right. There were five detached garages. They were for sale. What else would you call it but a “Garage Sale?”

Late at night, you’ll find me in my beloved Barcalounger, thinking deep, profound thoughts. Currently I’m wrestling with the age-old question: “When is a garage sale really a garage sale?”

Linda Hamner is a published author and former soap opera writer who won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1991 as part of the "Santa Barbara" writing team. She has lived in Philomath since 2006.

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