Famous First Words


Our nearly two-year-old niece pointed a stubby finger at the nearby finch, then trotted over to the next bird cage. A fresh smile grew on her face as she again pointed excitedly, this time at a pair of parakeets.


Yes, Riley has discovered words. Sporadically, anyway. During her weekly visits to our house, it’s not uncommon anymore to see her pursuing the dog with an outstretched arm and calling “Oggie!”At red lights, she’ll sometimes tell her dad “Go, go, go!” She’s even learned a sort of chorus to “Old McDonald,” chiming in at the right moments with “Ya, ya-yo!”

Clearest of all is the cry of achievement. We heard this one when she saw a cartoon boy working in his garden – something Riley had just helped her mom with the other day.

“I did it!” she declared, pointing ahead.

You sure did, hon.

It’s especially fun for me because I’ve lived with and worked with words for so long. I love their sound, their texture, their taste. Heather and I used to spend many date nights comparing words with cool sounds – yes, we’re geeks – or bemoaning the fact that the best words always seemed to belong to horrible medical situations. (Heather’s own condition of ankylosing spondylitis has a certain musical ring to it.)

Now, with two nieces and a nephew in the toddler stage, I get to watch someone new dip their toe in the pool. It’s like being an artist seeing someone discover finger paints, or a musician hearing the first strikes on a toy piano.

Or maybe a marksman carefully watching the first lesson on a firing range.

Because words have power. Oh, so much power.

We start out claiming otherwise. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words …” Well, you know the rest. And before we get out of elementary school, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn that words can hurt. A lot.




And yeah, worse ones that I’m not going to print here.

By the time we’re grown, we’ve had an opportunity to see the best and the worst that language can do. And it doesn’t have to be a Shakespearean sonnet or a stream-of-consciousness flood of profanity to get a reaction.

In many ways, the most potent ones are the reverse of my old date-night exercise: ordinary words freighted with extraordinary meaning.

“Are you OK?”

“Never mind.” (Sigh) “It’s not important.”

“What were you thinking?”

“Hey. It’s all right. Come here.”

None of those require a college degree. All of them can leave fingerprints on the soul.

A word well-wielded can be an awesome thing. Or a terrible one.

And someday, Riley will learn that power.

Learn to speak well, little one. Learn when not to speak. And especially learn how to listen, not just to the words of others, but to your own, so that you may always realize what you’re saying and how.

May your words always be a joy and your joy be beyond words.

Now, let’s go check out those erdees.