In the “Speed Bump” comics strip in the Sunday, May 10, 2020 Washington Post, one character says to another, “I don’t know how you can call me ‘pretentious’ when you don’t even know the word derives from ‘pretentionem’ in medieval Latin.”
The joke is on me. It’s the kind of thing I might have said. It comes from my fascination with words as a result of having spent so much of my life as a linguist in seven different languages. I taught myself Italian and French as a child, studied Latin for four years in high school, then went on to study Vietnamese, Chinese, German, and Spanish. Meanwhile, I knew at age six that I was born to write and have been writing ever since. Because writing doesn’t pay the bills, I became a spy early in life, spent thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, escaped under fire when Saigon fell in 1975, then became involved in other adventures after 1975—all still classified so I can’t talk about them.
Through it all, I wrote. I retired from spydom more than twenty years ago and have been writing full-time ever since. Words are my life. I am more intrigued than ever by words and the delicate distinctions of meaning and inference among them. I struggle to refine my usage and choice of words to convey exactly the meaning and implication needed to shape the story I am telling.
As I scramble to find the underlying inference of words, I often go back to their origin. I trace their roots to Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, or French or occasionally other languages (e.g., “typhoon,” from Chinese for “big wind”). I struggle to determine the cultural hue of words and phrases to capture the connotation.
Does that make me pretentious? How could it when I know that “pretentious” derives from “pretentionem” in medieval Latin?