word I fell for in prehistoric times was hypochondriac. I heard a wife shout it at her husband (I was hiding in the cupboard) and thought it meant loudmouth, which the husband was. Another was vilify, this one used by my father while arguing with the drugstore manager after the manager had accused me of shoplifting (I had). I thought it meant defend. Ever noble, my father vilified me all the way home, though it sounded a lot like disdain, which meant not liking to go to the basement, as in: “Why do you disdain the basement?” Later, I would ask plumbers and carpenters if they disdained the basement and receive untoward looks.
But back to hypochondriac. One day, at school, a teacher called out a pupil who’d disrupted class by defending Hitler. The student had objected to the teacher’s reference to Hitler as a “mad monster” and insisted he be called an “evil genius” instead. I was that student, and I was ordered to leave class.
At that moment I had no choice but to pluck arrows from my verbal arsenal. So I called the teacher hypochondriac. In front of the class. And no one did anything. Not even the teacher, who looked the way mum sounds. What a remarkably effective word, I thought to myself, and decided to say it again, this time to the assistant principle in detention hall, since I considered his tone yet another example of reckless hypochondria. “And what exactly do I take?” he asked. To which I confusedly answered, “power,” and up we went down babble lane (listen if you dare, Donald Trump, and others). My father was invited in to mediate and immediately demanded to know why I, his son, had vilified my elders, to which I replied, “No! I did the opposite,” prompting even further confusion among so-called adults.
Soon after serving my jail time (two hours after school in a dingy room) I couldn’t help but vilify the janitor on my way out — after all, he’d smiled at me sympathetically — and so ended that day’s vocabulary lesson. I would boast of vilifying others to reward a variety of good deeds until my weary father bought me a book by a man named Webster, whose teachings — to him — carried biblical standing.
Still, there remained plenty of hypochondriacs around, including Richard Nixon, whom I assailed in an op-ed piece I sent to the New York Times. It was rejected for misspellings and assorted incoherence in a letter that otherwise vilified me for my efforts. The editor, a man named Harrison Salisbury, did wonder why it was I kept insisting Nixon took so many pills, suggesting I reconsider my disdain — all the time never mentioning the basement. A new wave of confusion rose and broke.
My exasperated father, seeing Webster had only carried my halfway across the river, chose to play saint to my Christopher, suggesting I limit the length of my words. Why say egregious or multifarious or rhubarb or enamored (all Webster’s doing) when I could instead opt (short word) for less flavorful but more effective ways of saying and writing things, perhaps beginning with hello. Sticking to the simple might win me more friends, he said. It might also teach me the correct meaning of vilify. It would certainly put an end to my perplexing of plumbers in the cat- and pipe-filled basement.
Years later I adopted my father’s short-word philosophy. I even made an effort to speak and write clearly, taking instruction from the most unemotional of nouns and verbs, the kind that make their point without too much roughness or offense, putting a tight lid on easy agitation.
I thought that was part of growing up and into the reluctant but necessary restraint of adulthood. But now, hearing the mean multiples of political language, the fractured communiqués of networking, and listening to the steady spread of pipe and plumber verbiage, I realize I was wrong. Webster’s healing power doesn’t last. I now know that no matter how many decades pass there will always be plenty of hypochondriacs at the ready, and legions of people around to vilify them with applause, even in the basement. And it gives me no comfort.