“There’s a word that the boss is using that we have never heard. He uses it often. What does ‘Sarafino’ mean?” The question was asked by a fellow researcher working on a project to assess the relative merits of two systems of management at the National Hospital, Colombo. The ‘boss’ in question was a senior lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Peradeniya, the principal researcher.
..no, I have no idea. Let’s check the dictionary,’ I suggested. We tried different spellings. Sarapino. Satapino. Nothing.
We gave up.
A few weeks later, the boss made a presentation to those who had commissioned the study. It was an interim report. The research assistants were at the back of the room, listening. At one point, someone nudged me and whispered, ‘that word again…sarafino…he is using it!’ Indeed he was. But it was not ‘sarafino’. He was just saying ‘sort of, you know’ very fast and the words were bunched together so tight that they came out as ‘sarafino’.
There are times like that when the dictionary does not help. Most times, however, they are invaluable. There was once a person called Malcolm Little who lived in the USA. Malcolm’s family had to move from place to place because his father, Earl, a Baptist lay preacher who advocated self-reliance and ‘Black Pride’ was hounded by the Ku Klux Klan. When Malcolm was just 6, his father was murdered. His mother was admitted to a mental institution when he was just 13. It was perhaps natural that he moved from foster home to foster home, drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery and pimping, and eventually prison.
In prison he met a convict called John Bembry, who he later described as ‘the first man I had ever seen command total respect…with words’. It was in prison that Malcolm, frustrated about how inarticulate he was, began transcribing page after page from a dictionary. That’s how he learnt words. He would later, as Malcolm X and later still as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, become known as one of the most eloquent representatives of subjugated peoples, especially African Americans, and one of the most strident voices against racism.
We often come across words whose meanings we are not sure of. If there’s someone around, we might ask. If not, we try to guess, going by the context. We see the same word many times and get a sense of the meaning. Growing up, one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me came in the form of denying something, ironically.
“What’s the meaning of this word?” I would ask my father or mother, both English honours graduates. They always said, ‘check the dictionary’. I just couldn’t understand why they couldn’t tell me what it meant. It would have saved me so much trouble. The Random House Dictionary was BIG. Heavy. And I was impatient to learn the meaning and continue with whatever story I happened to be reading.
Today that Random House Dictionary is almost falling apart. That’s out of continuous and frequent usage. We never learn just one word from a dictionary. Our eyes move to proximate words. And, as we flip the pages looking for the particular word, we come across other words that capture our attention just because they sound strange.
When the dictionary is checked, we learn other words that have the same meaning. We learn about similar sounding words and word roots. We learn how words come into being. Their etymologies. That’s almost a lesson in history that we learn simply because someone said ‘go check the dictionary’.
There is a woman who has a stammer. I first met her when she was about 17 years old. I have never heard her stammer and when I was told she did I just could not believe it. The person who told me explained: ‘She knows a lot of words, so when she feels she is going to slur over a particular word she quickly uses another word.’ Neat. She must have had to learn a lot of words of course. It’s not only about hiding a stammer though.
We won’t all end up as articulate as Malcolm X, but when we have more words, we can express ourselves better and when we know a lot of words we know exactly what someone using them is trying to communicate. You won’t find ‘sarafino’ in a dictionary but that’s not something you need to worry about.