Defining our terms
This column is about semantics, and particularly about our usage of the word “stupid,” along with synonyms and similar words.
And specifically about how all of this applies to me, but first let me tell you about the dinner.
My wife and I had dinner with friends the other night, although since we’re talking about semantics I should point out that, in the beginning, some of us knew each other and some did not. I can say by the end of the night we were friends, though, which is the best possible outcome of things like this.
Our hosts each provided a specialty, in his case gumbo and in hers pecan pie, both of which were the best I’ve ever tasted and we don’t need to get into semantics. They were, and my wife agreed.
It was a fun evening, and given the good food we talked a little about cooking. As I’ve done before, I described myself as a pretty mediocre cook, which sounds self-deprecating but is just a honest assessment.
I admire creative and passionate people, and some of them are cooks, and none of them are me.
I know how to cook, learning in two big steps: When I moved out of the house where my mother lived, and when I became a father. Fast food only goes so far, and children will eventually stop eating food that comes in jars, so particularly in the latter case necessity is the mother of macaroni and cheese.
So I learned to cook some essential things, and to do some basic tasks. I know how to sauté, baste, poach, broil, bake, roast, and scramble an egg. I’m a little better at baking, but only because I like to play with dough.
I can feed you a decent chicken and an even better loaf of fresh bread, but I’m not getting my own show soon if you know what I mean. I’m adequate.
But even adequacy will get better over the years. I’m comfortable cooking, at substituting ingredients and adjusting temperatures. I know when to stir the soup and when to let it be, and while I know how to measure I’m not afraid to pour a rough tablespoon of salt into my hand and toss it into the pot. I’m a casual cook that way.
This isn’t about cooking, though. This is about semantics, and stupidity.
Since there were introductions to be made at our dinner, with the requisite hand shaking, I had to explain the bandage on my right hand. I had a little accident the night before the dinner, but then I’ll let you decide the semantics.
You know how you’re supposed to tie your shoelaces? Of course you do. It’s how you keep shoes on; it’s part of the whole footwear philosophy. If your shoes have laces, they should be tied.
Also, you could trip over an unlaced lace, particularly in a narrow space, like a hallway.
As I approached my front door, then, I noticed my shoelace was untied. And here’s where I made an unforced error: Instead of tying the lace, I unlocked the door and stepped into the hallway, thinking I’d just walk to the nearest chair and either tie the lace or, more likely, just take my shoes off.
So I tripped, as I’m sure you’ve already figured out. I stumbled and fell, breaking my fall with my hands. It wasn’t a serious fall, although it could have been. But my right hand was holding my house keys, and when I pulled myself up I noticed my front door key looked like it was trying to unlock the palm of my right hand.
When I moved my hand, in other words, the key moved with it.
Again, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. It wasn’t deep and barely bled, just a minor puncture wound, although my hand ached for a day or so. I bandaged it up and thus the explanation for the other dinner guests, who seemed to find the story amusing.
It’s hard to keep a palm wound bandaged, as it turns out, since we constantly flex and extend our hands, so eventually I mostly left the wound open, keeping it clean and watching for signs of infection. It still hasn’t quite healed, actually, since, again, we flex and extend our hands a lot.
The wound kept starting to heal over and then opening up again, just a little, even bleeding a bit. It was sort of a two steps forward, one step back situation, but not a bit deal.
So here we go with semantics. Leaving my shoelace untied? Careless, certainly. Maybe even dumb. Stupid? Whatever, but at least I had a rationale for putting that off, thinking I’d be inside in a few moments.
Falling on my hand with the keys? You can’t pin that on me; I doubt anyone thinks fast enough to jettison sharp objects while they’re dealing with gravity on short notice. I’m calling it an accident, pure and simple.
Careless. Dumb. Thoughtless, ignorant, unaware, not paying attention… these are other ways of describing people and their actions, and they just sound more polite than “stupid.”
The S-word ought to be reserved, I think, for exceptional acts, for transcendent moments when a human being suddenly becomes detached from his or her brain.
Such as making a big pot of tomato sauce, deciding it needs a little something extra, and pouring a rough tablespoon of salt into the palm of a hand with an open wound.
This is what I mean by semantics. Sometimes you just need the right word.