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Words and meanings don’t always match

Moseyin’ Along

May 1, 2013
By Joyce Schenk - COLUMNIST ( , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

Our American form of the English language gives us a beautiful and expressive means of communication. But, as we've all experienced, this complex language can also be misleading.

Many areas of American life are filled with words that can easily confuse. From medicine to law, from electronics to agriculture, each field of interest has its own unique vocabulary.

For a number of years, my husband, George, and I were involved in another area where the language can become a stumbling block. We operated a hardware store.

During our time behind the counter, we learned first-hand the difficulties the average shopper can experience when trying to locate a certain hardware item among the thousands that fill the shelves.

Almost daily someone would come in with an urgent request for a "dohickey," a "what-cha-ma-call-it" or a "thingmajig." It was a challenge to sort out just what the customer needed.

One of the more frequent mix-ups came from using the word "plug," interchangeable in referring to the item at the end of an electric chord as well as the place in the wall where such a chord was inserted.

Other examples included such hardware standards as "connectors," "unions" and "terminals." These universal terms could refer to totally different things in departments as diverse as electrical, plumbing, electronic and automotive.

Our time in the hardware business introduced me to many terminology mix-ups, but during my later years, while running the lab at a nursing home, I experienced a different type of word confusion.

Over time, I came to treasure the elderly patients for their humor, their wisdom and their unassuming attitude. Every day I learned from these delightful folks who were part of what's been called the Greatest Generation.

One lesson they taught me early on was that the words they often used, from an earlier time, were unfamiliar to the younger ears of the staff.

A favorite example of this happened to my friend, Betty, the activities director of the facility who enjoyed helping the patients. She took a special interest in filling the little personal needs each of them had.

One day, while preparing to go out on a shopping trip, Betty stopped in the activity room and asked if she could pick up anything for anyone.

Little silver-haired Margaret motioned from her wheel chair in the corner. When Betty reached her, Margaret, a very private and shy lady, whispered ,"I need a buskinfinder."

Betty asked her to repeat her request.

"A buskinfinder," Margaret hissed, a bit louder, looking around the room to make sure no one else heard.

Betty could get no further explanation, so she asked around the staff to see if any of us could identify this mysterious "buskinfinder."

After a fruitless search to determine what little Margaret wanted, she finally hit on a way solve the mystery. She brought the Sears catalog to the activity room and showed it to Margaret.

"I'll be happy to get what you need," she told the little lady, "but first, show me a picture so I get the right thing."

Margaret slowly thumbed through the big book until she reached the section she was looking for. At last, she triumphantly spread the page for Betty to see. With a gnarled finger, she pointed and said slowly and clearly, "See, a bust confiner."

The item she indicated was a bra.

When a complex language like ours gets confusing, pictures help.



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