Could the suffering of all the early years of rote-learning morph in middle age
into a hobby that gave me another reason to thank life? After formal schooling,
it started as an itch that had to be scratched regularly. Once or twice a year,
I had to read some vocabulary books, not necessarily new, and often took the
exams offered there. This went on for a dozen or so years. And then, around 2019
Thanksgiving, I took the leap to start reading the American Heritage Dictionary
Two years passed and the original neck-breaking pace of one page a day had
settled to a flexible rhythm to coexist with my other interests. By 2021
Thanksgiving, I had reached page 650, about one third of the tome. In my
youthful past, I would have fretted about missing the original two-year target
of 730 pages. Giving up the strict goal, however, had made the journey much more
Most of what I read I forgot. Among the rest, some words were learnt after many
repetitions, e.g., pinnate, which describes a leaf pattern that many plants
share. Others delighted and left an instant mark. For example, the compact
definition of fern,
"n. any of numerous flowerless, seedless vascular plants having roots,
stems, and fronds and reproducing by spores."
connected immediately as the images of fernbrakes in the Wanda mountains in
northeast China flashed across my mind. The word fastigiate,
"adj. Botany. Having erect and almost parallel branches tapering toward the
top, as in the Lombardy poplar."
matched perfectly those roadside poplar clusters on my way to the coffee shop.
Two meanings of the recent word, fence, stood out:
"n. One who receives and sells stollen goods or a place where stollen goods
are received and sold."
It felt as if the Providence had chosen certain things to reveal to me.
The benefits of consistent learning seemed to spill over to other areas of life.
At work, e.g., I never used rare expressions to impress but paid more attention
and grew more confident anyway. After I broadcast a request, one colleague
replied the email with simply "I like your choice of words." Finding the right
words and describing a thing in more ways than one became easier.
Here are a few verses to remember this powerful feeling.
There once was a computer programmer,
Whose career was stuck forever.
He turned to the dictionary,
For a change of scenary,
And they said he came back clever.