As I walked into class on Monday, the first thing one of my students said about the homework was “Am I the only one who had never even heard of an ‘en dash’?”
I laughed and polled the class, and sure enough there were several others who felt the same way. Heck, I didn’t hear about en dashes until grad school, so it’s very possible that my freshmen students are now ahead of the curve.
I remember the feeling of enlightenment that came with learning the term en dash. It was like, “Whoa! The universe is bigger than I thought! There’s this extra little thing that I’ve probably seen my whole life but didn’t realize was unique!” (Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic for a punctuation mark that’s only slightly longer than a hyphen, but I do tend to get dramatic about punctuation. What can I say? I’m an English geek.)
Suddenly, just by knowing its name and what it was, I became more aware of it. I started seeing en dashes everywhere. I even came across one today in Righting the Mother Tongue: “a sixty-four-thousand–word translation of Aesop’s Fables.” Did you see it? That third hyphen-like thing that’s not a hyphen because it’s longer? It’s this special little thing that’s so rare most books probably don’t need one, but it serves a function that nothing else can by linking together all those extra words. So I’m grateful for it!
The point is . . . naming something — whether we assign it a brand new name or simply use the name already attached to it — makes us more aware of it. It makes that thing stand out to us in its uniqueness so that we can appreciate it more.
My grandma used to submit that one of the traits of courteous people is that they learn others’ names and use them often, because when you say someone’s name, that person immediately knows you care. Naming does that, too: shows that we care enough about someone or something to know what he, she, or it is called.
I started thinking about all this in terms of Thanksgiving when I read my friend Leisha’s post listing the things for which she’s grateful. Most of the population of America is likely to write a similar post this week, and why do we do it? Why do we copy what so many others have already done? I submit it’s because we need to name our blessings to elevate their importance, to secure them in our memory, to make ourselves more aware of and grateful for them. That’s what naming does.
Last year I wrote about the ten writers I’m most grateful for. This year I want to catch a broader spectrum, though I’ll limit myself to just the main ones that have stood out to me lately:
- Words. Maybe having a baby makes me especially aware of their importance (“Why can’t you just tell me what you need so I don’t have to keep guessing??”), or maybe it’s that spelling book I’m reading (Did you know that a group of dermatologists is called a “rash”? How awesome is that??). Maybe it’s because of thinking about names so much for this post and because I’ve learned so many new names in the last month, like that “good” bacteria have their own names like Acidophilus and that there’s more than one branch of medicine, like allopathy and naturopathy and homeopathy, and each new word/name I learn comes with that universe-expanding feeling of “Whoa! Life is cooler than I knew!”
- Hubby, who says things like, “Well, if you HAVE to experiment with new dinners, just fix them on a night when you’re teaching.” To which I respond, “Why? So you can throw it out while I’m gone? Where’s your sense of adventure?” And he says, “Oh, it’s not that. I just like to add conflict to our relationship to keep it interesting. You know, like in movies — if there’s no conflict, it’s boring!” Yeah, I love that man. (That conversation is verbatim, by the way.)
- Boys, who regularly turn all stick-like objects into swords or guns (depending on the length of the stick) and are constantly fixating on ways to fight “bad guys” and “monsters” and “strangers.” I’m grateful to have so many of them “protecting” our family, and I’m grateful for all the many ways they share unique perspectives about the world with me.
- Food! The main culprit here is that when I’m nursing a baby, I’m constantly hungry. This time around I’ve decided to focus on whole foods like grains, veggies, and fruits, and learning about the health benefits of them has made me so much more grateful for organic produce and all the like. Hooray for market forces at work driving us toward healthier, more sustainable agriculture!
- The Internet, which makes so much knowledge so readily available! I’m grateful to have free access to information on everything from en dashes to naturopathy, to read blog posts and journal articles and pamphlets and studies and theses and how-to’s and manifestos and whatever else right from my kitchen table. It definitely helps speed along the revealing of names and the expanding of my universe.
How has your universe expanded lately? What blessings will you name off this week? And why is naming them important to you?