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An Uncommon Language

“Go where?”

“To the backyard.” I pointed by nodding in that direction as I balanced our iced teas on a tray.

“You mean the garden?” asked Keith, my new British boyfriend. I often needed to explain our American form of his language to him.

“We call it the yard here, Keith.”

He shuddered. “Yard is an ugly word for such a lovely place.”

Slowly, I explained, “Keith, here it’s the space behind the house, where kids play, women hang out the washing, and we’ll have our drinks.” I tried to be a patient teacher. I never imagined part of our new relationship would find me teaching English to an Englishman.

He curled his lip in disgust. “In England, yards are paved with tarmac, with a few dustbins in a corner. Yard is too ugly.” I liked the way he wrinkled his nose. My mind strayed from the lesson.

Dustbins, tarmac, where to begin? Keith and I often lapsed into our version of the Revolutionary War over linguistic differences. Jello, jelly, and jam launched another skirmish. Brits eat jelly for dessert: here we put it on our toast. They’re happy to say jam when they’re spreading either jelly or preserves.

We had met in the fall of 1960 at Swarthmore College, Keith Johnson ’62 and I, at 21 and 20, he an exchange student from England, I a junior. In our first encounter, words and language formed the heart of the matter. One Saturday night, my friend Isabelle Phillips Williams ’63 and I sat studying European history together in Commons, a cavernous, high-ceilinged social center in Parrish Hall. By day, the high uncurtained Georgian windows filled the space with light. At night, the glass turned ink-black, and the room sank deep in gloom, except where a few floor lamps with their always cockeyed shades dotted the floor with narrow pools of dim light. The almost-fog of our cigarette smoke drifted through those pools.

Izzie looked up from her book. Annoyed by the need to interrupt her reading, she demanded, “What does this word mean, obstreperous?”

“What’s the context?  Read me the sentence it’s in.”

Izzie read it, something about the conduct of British politicians in the House of Lords, debating hotly. Instead of supplying Izzie with another word, I began to act out the meaning, mouthing silent shouts, gesticulating, flinging my arms about my head. She stared blankly. Then we heard a disembodied voice from a far-off pool of light, “AWWWK-w’d.” Izzie and I exchanged uncomprehending glances. Again came the puzzling explanation from the voice far across the empty room: “AWWWK-w’d.” This time, as we made no answer, the owner of the voice stood up and sauntered all the way from his corner to ours, doling out a letter with each step, “A-W-K-W-A-R-D, awkward.” As he approached, I recognized the tall, nearly gaunt English exchange student. I had noticed him often, sitting alone in Commons, reading, smoking his pipe, or just observing.

Awwk-werd, oh, we get it now,” we laughed, converting his beguiling musical enunciation to our own harsh Northeastern twang. But of course, though we now recognized the word, we three began to debate the meaning of ”awkward” and whether it meant the same as obstreperous. Keith explained, still in that appealing, mellow British accent, that brought his mouth into ever more enticing shapes, the use of awkward to describe a difficult noisy child, one who misbehaved, in fact, the way the Brits in the history book were misbehaving. This made some sense, but by then, we had launched into our first of many animated discussions about the differences between the English he was used to and “American,” as he called our tongue. So the word “obstreperous” and our debate over its meaning brought Keith and me together. If Izzie hadn’t asked her question, if we hadn’t been alone in the big room, or if other students had been between us, playing bridge and chatting noisily, Keith and I might never have spoken that night.

An hour later Keith smiled a shy smile, excused himself to return to his seat and pack his neglected books into his dark green cloth book bag like the ones we all carried in 1960. He pulled on his brown wool duffle coat and wound his long multicolored British college scarf round and round his neck. With a tentative backward look full into my eyes (not Izzie’s, I was sure) he slipped into the night, the swinging doors flapping shut behind him.

In less than two years, the words we exchanged were “I do’s.”       

“Fatuity, maundering, infelicitous,” words I didn’t know kept cropping up in the books I read in bed beside Keith over the years of our marriage. “What does this word mean, honey?” His own book resting temporarily on his chest, his eyes rolled toward the ceiling. I swear the definitions must have been printed there in ink visible only to him.

“Fatuity: something quite stupid or silly,” he read slowly, before turning back to his own novel. At first, I looked them up, but then saw I didn’t need to. He had become my teacher.

One day years later, shortly after Keith’s death, I ran across a word I didn’t know. Out of habit, I started to turn to him for his help. In that moment, I fresh-grieved my loss.

These days, a different husband asks me, “What does this word mean?” I look up and smile and think of Keith.