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Saturday, Aug. 22, 2009

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The right word and the right to choose it


If you are a foreigner living in Japan, odds are high that language learning has played a key role in your residency.

Perhaps it's provided the glue that has bound your bicultural life together. Or maybe it's been more like Tabasco. As in adding a dash of zing to your every interaction.

And have you ever got Tabasco on your fingers? And then rubbed your eyes? If so, you possess tingling insight into my own dealings with the Japanese language.

Yet, my Japanese has slowly come together. Sort of like how Frankenstein came together. Piece by bloody piece. In fact, I am still adding parts — hoping one day to find a brain.

In all this, I have been amazed at the process of word acquisition. On one day I learn a term that I swear I haven't heard in 30 years. And in the days that follow I hear that same word spring into every conversation I make.

It's as if the entire Japanese population had conspired to hide that one word, until at last the cat popped from the bag and everyone could relax and cut lose.

Of course this hidden word trick happens to learners of other languages too. Like with my wife's struggles with English. . .

Her eyes dilate with a dizzy combination of indignation and disbelief. She crinkles her nose. And speaks.

"What's this word?. . . 'Pre-ro-ga-tive'? Is it a proper noun? Like maybe the name of a virus? You know, like . . . 'Run quick! The whole town's got Prerogative! ' "

So I teach her. "Prerogative" may not be so common, but neither is it rare. The word refers to a person's "right." As in the right to their own opinion. Or their right to choose.

She stares at me for two full breaths. Then says, "You're kidding."

"Why would I be kidding?"

"Because I've studied English since I was 12 and I've never even heard of this word. Which is impossible. You made that up. I know you did."

"OK. Go look in the dictionary."

"You think I'm stupid? You can't trick me like that."

"OK then don't. It's your prerogative."

"Right. It probably means 'nose hair' or something. No way will I look it up."

Naturally, in the next week she hears "prerogative" everywhere she turns — from friends, from her students, from the TV. All sources more credible than her husband.

"Prerogative. Prerogative. Prerogative," she now repeats, as if counting sheep. Yet her eyes gleam more like those of a wolf.

"Oh," she growls, "How could I have ever lived without this word!"

"Well, that's because you used synonyms," I tell her, "Like 'option,' or 'choice.' 'Prerogative' is a luxury item, really. It's a Gucci bag when all you need is a paper sack."

"But I deserve some luxury, don't I?" she says. "My day-to-day vocabulary is so drab."

And then the wolf springs.

"So why didn't you give me this word before, huh? These days you never give me anything, do you? Not since we were first married. You gave me lots of new words then."

A line that leaves me lost for words altogether.

"Oh I know, I know. . . Bestowing words is your prerogative."

"Uh, I think I'd like you to shut up now."

"And what a cute word it is, too! It starts with that dainty 'P' sound, which is chased away at once by the throaty 'ra.' A 'ra' which rises like a Lamborghini taking a hill too fast, only to dive straight to the earth again with that final, fabulous 'gative,' so slinky and sexy and suggestive. Like a distant echo of 'provocative. ' "

"Please."

"Prerogative. Prerogative. Prerogative. It's a word I could say forever."

"Pretty please."

"No. I have to make up for a lifetime of not having spoken this marvelous word. "

"Do you have to speak it? Couldn't you just think it quietly in your head?"

"But announcing it to the entire house is my prerogative."

So I change tactics.

"Listen. You will wear that word out. It will be like those boots you bought last winter. You wore them everywhere and pretty soon the heels were flatter than road kill. Ease up a bit. Let the word last."

"But good times never last. I want to use the word as much as I can, while the road kill is still fresh."

And she does. Soon every nook of our house is crammed with "prerogatives." I imagine even our roaches sit cringing within the walls.

"However," she adds, "You could always teach me something better."

Yet in the frustration of the moment all I can think of are pejoratives.

"Huh," she says. "What was that? Pe. . .what?"

"Pejorative?"

"Ah! Sounds intriguing. Tell me, what does it mean?"

"Um. . . Nose hair."

So she loses interest. A white lie here being in the best interest of my sanity.

And, of course, my prerogative.



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