I love words and using just the right one, whether in conversation or writing. I get a little zing of happiness when I retrieve the best word for what I want to say. It’s satisfying. Maybe it makes small difference to the listener or reader – not sure – but when I hit it, I feel my work is done. That’s why, when I can’t remember or nail a particular word, I feel frustrated. It’s important to me to be able to get it back. I want to stay sharp; I don’t want words to steadily drop away till I’m reduced to a marginal vocabulary and pointing: “that thing, there.” The way my brain works, I come up with similar words or words that somehow relate to the one I want. I don’t know if it’s like that for everyone. Probably not.
A little illustration. I was trying to think of a word this morning. Not because I needed it for a particular purpose but because I knew I couldn’t remember it, and moreover it’s one I regularly lose. I think the reason for that is because I learned this word, in its specific context, later in life. Maybe when you learn a word later, it gets stored in a dusty closet with junk piled in front of it in your brain. Not in the shiny, spiffed-up room where most of the words live, all ready to do business. Also, I’m not certain I’ve ever heard anyone actually use the word in conversation – it’s one I know I’ve read in books, though.
I probably spent 5 or 10 minutes puzzling. And as in the past, other words, somehow related (in what way I didn’t know) were coming to mind. So I wrote them down: foil, prawn, mussel, sting. I knew my word related, but how? I couldn’t rest till I knew dagnabbit! Relax, it’ll come to you. It has before, exactly this way. BEARD!!! The word was beard. Do you know it in this context? Do most people? If not, I’ll first say, without looking it up, the way I understand it, which is that if someone is doing something illicit or otherwise trying to hide what they’re doing, the beard is the person who “covers” for them. If married Jack says he is going to play poker with Sam, but really is going to have sex with Lila, Sam is the beard for the operation in case Jack’s wife calls up to check on his whereabouts.
The Google dictionary says:
a person who carries out a transaction, typically a bet, for someone else in order to conceal the other’s identity.
The Urban Dictionary says [with typos corrected, ahem]:
Any opposite sex escort taken to an event in an effort to give a homosexual person the appearance of being out on a date with a person of the opposite sex.
“Half of the women on the red carpet at the movie premier were not real dates, but beards.”
(I’ve heard the “date” definition but forgotten it. Somehow it doesn’t seem a good fit – I want a different, better word for that, maybe a new word.)
I can see how, for the definition-in-my-mind as well as Google’s definition, my brain retrieval system works via the other words that came to mind. “Foil” and “sting” have to do with the illicitness involved, the fooling somebody. “Mussels” have beards, which always struck me as funny. “Prawn” is simply another seafood (but they don’t have beards so far as I know.) Each time this has happened with the word “beard” I try to figure out some way of retrieving it next time it’s lost. I’m afraid, though, that I’ve already locked in the related words; mussel in particular. It’s something on a mussel, I think, something on a mussel…what could it be? Hinge? What else do mussels possibly have?
Maybe if I started using beard in conversation, it would become stored differently and be more accessible in the future. However, I cannot bring myself to start using it in conversation. Although I love “beard” defined this way – as a subterfuge – and wonder how did I went so long not knowing it – it feels made up. And if I said it, people would look at me funny.