I was a teenager before I knew the term succulent also referred to plants. I loved words as a child and whenever I learned a new word and definition I would savor it, use it repeatedly and play with it until I drove those around me crazy. Succulent. It is an amazing word, with lots of hard consonants. It almost sounded like a swear word to me, like a word maybe that I shouldn’t use in front of my mom and dad. But quite possibly use it in private. Succulent. I had never really heard it used in conversation but knew that when I had heard it spoken, it was often in whispered tones. “Oh my, you should see my succulents.” Or, “I am thinking succulents. What do you think?” Adults seemed to be smiling when they used the word so I thought it was a word that shouldn’t be spoken in public, or at least not in a loud voice.
The first time I heard my dad use the word, he was referring to his dinner. “JoAnn, this steak is absolutely succulent. The onions and mushrooms with it are perfect.” What?! I turned bright red sitting at the dinner table that night. Why was my dad using a naughty word that others have whispered in front of me? Oh, but he was talking about a steak. I was even more confused. It never once dawned on me to actually ask what the word meant. My parents would have been more than happy to tell me, I just thought that I was going to get in trouble for asking. I had convinced myself that it was a naughty word and that mom and dad would be ashamed of me as a child if I used it.
My mother then used the word succulent when describing the fat cherry tomatoes she was growing in the garden. I turned the color of the tomato. My mom noticed my silence and my need to turn and flee. “Mom, why are you using that bad word?” She laughed and was baffled at my question. She realized the only word I wouldn’t have known was succulent. “Succulent? Honey, that isn’t a bad word. That is a wonderfully descriptive word. It means that the tomato is juicy and tasty. Meaning it so good.” She continued to giggle to herself and then asked me what I thought it meant. My mom laughed for what felt like days when I told her I didn’t know what it meant but thought it was a swear word.
Finding out that it wasn’t a swear word. I decided it was the best word on the planet and used it constantly. My peanut butter and jelly sandwich were succulent. Would anyone like one of the succulent brownies that my mom made? My sister added succulent chocolate chips to the banana bread. I must have made a few adults laugh the same way my mom did.
As a teenager, I was at a local greenhouse with my mom and saw a sign that said succulents. I looked down and saw a ridiculous amount of beautiful plants, all different shapes and sizes. They were all shades of green and yellow and purple. A feast for the eyes, I stood there looking at the plants that were apparently called succulents and felt the need to touch each one. Some were prickly and jutted out in unexpected directions. Some were smooth and round and symmetrical. But the fact that no two succulents were the same was enthralling to me. I studied each one as if it was an individual piece of artwork. Which they are. The handiwork of God’s ornate creation.
My love for words and the English language, in general, grew even more as a teenager. I discovered so many words with multiple, sometimes numerous definitions, and many completely opposite definitions. I began to wonder how many of us ever really understood what other people are saying if we are using words with so many meanings.
I started enjoying people watching right around that time. Sitting silently at the library or at a restaurant or even at school. I loved listening to conversations and exchanges that I wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to participate in. Conversations between adults that often included private details of marriages, private heart hurts and the soaring adult joys that I would someday experience. I heard talk of children struggling in school, adult children worried about the health of their ageing parents and concerns over a job loss. I also heard laughter, saw many tears and adored the exchanges of love and encouragement. But what I observed and heard the most was vocal tone. I heard that certain words, certain topics were shared in private hushed tones. Others at regular volume and still others loudly, almost as if others hearing was the point.
I learned that words matter, voice volume matters and the physicality of conversations matter. Some people became visually larger than life while storytelling, others sunk into chairs and back corners as if relaying information or talking about uncomfortable happenings would surely cause their demise. I learned that a handhold, an arm squeeze and a knowing look when eyes make direct contact also are of the utmost importance.
My love of words continues to this day. As a writer, you would think that I would have a huge vocabulary and use it often. I can’t pull it off. I end up sounding pretentious and even as if I am trying too hard. I stick to the words I know, the words I am comfortable using. The words that most people know and understand. I seem to appreciate large beautiful words more when they are written than in conversation. When someone whips out a 4 or 5 syllable word while talking to me which I usually do not know the meaning of, I have never once said, “You are amazing. Please continue to amaze me with words I don’t know. You are even more so amazing to me when you do.” No. I think to myself, stop trying to impress me, settle down.
I may still correct my husband when he tries to make the word Irregardless work in a sentence. I may critique my friends with online use of the words to, too and two. And I definitely correct my kids with the proper use of past tense, present tense and future tense words. But mostly, I am just trying to pronounce words correctly and use them in the appropriate context. So no judgement from me. I seem to make up words daily. I will say them with conviction to sound as if I really know what I am talking about. (Cats out of the bag.)
So when you hear me say the word succulent next time, know that it is a word I adore, a word that I wish others would use in frequent conversations with me. And know that I do think some of the harsh consonant words you use totally sound like swear words to me and I am giggling like a ten-year-old on the inside.