Bon Mot

It’s ironic that a NYT opinion article on little red shoes would make my morning. Ironic because anyone who knows me (or my wardrobe) knows how likely I am to have a pair of Louboutin shoes. Nevertheless, the article’s author garnered a Cheshire grin from me when, in paragraph seven, she used the word “qua.” I learned the word when I was eight, maybe ten, from my 85-year-old, French-Canadian neighbor Evelyn with whom I spent my childhood afternoons playing word games with an old deck of Royalty letter cards she kept rubber-banded in a drawer by the front window. Long after she’d died, I pulled out the matching deck she’d given me; I just loved making words. As a teacher playing Royalty with my students, it grieved me that never once did I play the word “qua” without a challenge.

What’s it mean?” my students would ask.

“In the capacity of,” I’d reply with dread of the inevitable.

“How do you use it?”

Silence.

See, I’d really never known. Sure, there was the occasional archaic example in the dictionary, but I never really had a solid grasp of how to put this word smoothly into a sentence.

“In the capacity of” is a fairly vague definition.

Then I saw the article: “Little Red (Litigious) Shoes.”

“The red elephant in the room is that though it is the artistic and creative core of the fashion industry, design is not protected qua design, but only as a symbol of who created it.”

Two and a half decades of confusion gone with the morning paper.

My students routinely squawk about the futility of memorizing words they won’t use in daily life, but therein lies the beauty in the love of language. Right? I try to explain to my kids that the grand words they learn in the mundane pages of Wordly Wise and Vocab Workshop are like the dollars we leave in pockets: we have them, we forget them, and we are overcome with joy when we stand at the washer/dryer and pull them unexpectedly out of pocket. True, most vocabulary words don’t require a quarter-century’s wait to be put to use, but there is no denying the swell of recognition at their rediscovery.

Of course, though young, my students are smart enough to understand my message: in order to benefit from memorizing endless lists of vocab, they also need to read. This is a double whammy of bad news for some; add to this the fact that my value analogy only holds value if you’ve ever actually stood next to a washer/dryer to do laundry and find those hidden $5 and $20 dollar bills – well, you can appreciate the uphill battle in passing on words like “meretricious” and “asseverate” to the next generation.

Perhaps I shall have to let them discover the love of language on their own.

“Why do we have to learn these, Miss Jennifer?”

I’ll conjure a more palatable reason. “For the SAT… Because I said so… Just do it… You’ll thank me later… So you’ll win Words with Friends.”

I may miss the moment their eyes twinkle with the pride of recognition at discovering that particularly memorable word in the line of a book on a lazy Sunday morning, but not everything can happen in the presence of our teachers. And when it does happen, the word’s significance will likely be particular to the individual. For me, “qua” is a memory of someone who called me “ma cherie” and taught me Royalty, Canasta, and the art of afternoon tea.

The word “qua” qua word holds little value, but the word “qua” qua memory is special indeed.

Boy. I hope I did that correctly.

Tell me. Is there a word that is special to you?

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