Somewhere a long time ago, I fell in love with words. I wasn’t a wee lad anymore, but pretty far along my childhood trek, waiting anxiously for pubic hairs to sprout like they had for the other guys my age. In that, like so many things, I was a tad late. And so it was with my love of words.
Up till then, words were just ordinary things. Like soap or water. You used them to say stuff, ask for stuff, get stuff. Nothing too special about them from a twelve-year old’s point of view.
At about that time, I learned there was a class of thing called bad words. This standing made them seem like actual objects, like bad apples or bad boys or bad dogs. And it struck me as odd. Words had been just for getting by, getting along, getting out of trouble, getting candy at trick or treat. You used them. You knew there were things called bananas, too. But that didn’t make them special. But they weren’t like bananas. Words were just words. They weren’t even things like bananas were. More like light in a room or air in a balloon. They showed up. Ordinary. Not worth the bother because they always were there. The original whatever. Like a politician’s speech. A lot of air but not much matter.
But this business with bad words was something different. Bad words amounted to something. They fomented things. They had a bit of heft to them like a stick or a stone. When you brought them out, they made for trouble. Things happened. They sat in drawers waiting to make mischief like cigarettes and pocket knives or lighter fluid
By comparison, I wasn’t aware of any good words. I had heard about nice things that could be said about someone, but what those words might be was a little vague. If you couldn’t say something nice about, say, Stevie or Eddie, well, don’t say anything. Or so I was told. I had no real opinion about Stevie or Eddie or any nice person for that matter. So I never said much. What was there to say? Hey, Stevie, you’re nice. What do you mean by that? You’d get punched in the arm if lucky. The nose if not.
Anyway, so it was bad words that got me thinking about words as things. A bit like facts, those things Dr Johnson said you could kick. Objects you could pile up, get in trouble with, make love with, save your ass with, squeak by with, make money with. They were awesome.
So as time went by I would write and read something for high school English class. Teachers got in a bother about it. I wrote stuff that ended up in the high school paper. Yet more bother. Dreck to be sure, but the barrel only had a few apples. Chiefly the ones I put there.
So word love came late to me. Like everything else, like I already said. All along I was reading. Curious George. The Hardy Boys. Pretty soon Holden Caulfield showed up, along with song lyrics and LP liner notes. After that things took off with dizzying nights of Joyce and Faulkner and fat Russian novels.
Nowadays I find myself lying awake at night waiting for the word to arrive to right whatever I’m working on at the moment. An ad. An essay. A radio spot. But again and again, I turn to my old four letter friends. Those taut, compact fellows that know how to get things done. I’m not talking about bad words, those coarse whelps who first taught me the power of diction. I came to love these workaday chaps who carry so much freight. Sturdy Germanic morphemes mostly, unsullied by William the Conqueror, the king who forced French on us. These little fellas had grit and didn’t need to put on airs, let alone gender or declension. They well withstood the romance of ladies, suitors, and dandies, the language of court, and left us rife with ways to say what needs to be said in ways every soul among us easily can.
What makes up this four letter legion? This stout stock of sturdy English? Oh, they are good friends all. And like the true and fair souls that they are, many are given to antonymy, bringing balance to every saw, for many of them have a complement. Some are now just common tropes. And others find life through alliteration.
Among this band there’s good and evil. Soft and hard. Damn and save. Womb and tomb. Poor and rich. Less and more. Love and hate. Four and five. Fear and hope. Hand and foot. Keen and dumb. Tits and hips. Bark and bite. Pick and chew. Eyes and ears. Fish and fowl. Long and lean. Kind and mean. Snow and rain. Guys and gals. Part and join. Tear and mend. Push and pull. Shoe and sock. Suit and vest. Open and shut. Beer and wine. Give and take. Need and want. Spic and span. Spit and snot. Coal and soot. Kick and stub. Tick and grub. Fast and slow. Show and tell. Call and dial. Meek and mild. Rage and rant. Hunt and peck. Cold and stiff. Stay and quit. Sign and seal. Walk and talk. Skin and bone. Hire and fire. Knee and jerk. Bump and dent. Wash and wear. Torn and sewn. Tick and tock. Rock and roll. Work and play. Book and worm. Lose and find. Free and bind. Will and wont. Mess and kept. Slip and slap. Dope and rope. Toil and soil. Bake and boil. Born and bred. Moon and star. Poke and yank. Ugly and fair. Piss and shit. Dank and damp. Wore and sore. Glue and tack. Golf and hole. Sick and cure. Rise and fall. Dirt and dust. Iron and rust. Muss and fuss. Puss and guts. Hide and seek. Toss and hurl. Chug and drug. Stop and heed. Boot and heel. Clip and clap. Lear and peep. Beef and sear. Belt and beat. Farm and dell. Shoe and horn. Soft and porn. Rare and glut. Boom and bust. Kill and crow. Slit and vent. Pomp and peer. Suck and spew. Sink and swim. Dare and warn. Told and tale. Stem and tide. Cast and cull. Here and nigh. Wack and mole. This and that. Last and list. Drip and leak. Huff and puff. Gust and wind. Copy and draw. Bunk and mate. Fizz and plop. Curd and whey. Loom and doom. Dead and head. Bald and hair. Nest and lair. Baby and crib. Spin and rest. Peel and dice. Peal and bell. Tart and sour. Toss and turn. Skip and miss. Buck and shot. Hike and pike. High and toke. Cook and done. Crop and tail. Soul and food. Cool and dude. Care and worn. Cash and card. Flat and tire. Bare and lush. Post and like. Nice and neat.
In this garden, there’s many a bloom. Add if you would your own with a post or a like. But leave with one last note on what started it all: a love of four consecutive letters — good, hale, and true.
© John Hofmeister. jhofmeister.com. @jwhirred
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me.