Sticks & Stones semantics

There have been a few words I have tried to eradicate from my child’s vocabulary.

Fat is one of them.

Retarded is another.

These are words that have bothered me for various reasons for a long time.

Fat is a word that taunted me as a child and is a word I have called myself, even in the times I was frighteningly skinny.

Retarded is a word that just shouldn’t be said.

There are other words that are just hurtful as well, and they all vary in their sting depending on their intent.

Does that mean bad words don’t sometimes fall out of my mouth for various reasons?
I’m not about to lie and say they don’t.

In moments of anger I have heatedly used hurtful epitaphs, not to anyone’s face mind you, but I have uttered them in furious outbursts, usually in the confines of my car or locked in the bathroom.

Not some of my finest moments.

Other words have floated around lately, words that I thought had been stricken from the vernacular, that created conversations as to the power, weight, and importance of words.

More importantly, the conversation focused on how some words can be used to hurt and are never okay, regardless of the relationship between the people using them.

And as I try to be vigilant about the words that are uttered and said about people, two words that I didn’t even think about have found themselves on my radar.

Dumb and stupid.

Being a parent makes one hyper-aware of the words that are said.

You expect the occasional swear word to slip out as a means of pushing the boundaries.

You wait for a teacher to send you a note saying your child repeated words that are unacceptable and she wonders where he heard them.

Dumb and stupid seem to be innocent words, uttered about things that are common and everyday.

“That’s so stupid,” I have muttered under my breath when I hear something I don’t agree with.

“How dumb,” has been whispered about instructions on the back of the pizza box.

It wasn’t until I heard the words come out of my child’s mouth that I realized how these words that seemed so benign to a degree could hurt.

He wasn’t even saying the words in a mean manner. But hearing him say them made me realize how hurtful they could be.

“Who was dumb?” I asked for clarification.

“Not who, Mama. What. And it was the rules. The rules are so dumb and stupid.”

I can understand feeling that way as a teenager. Rules do feel that way at times, even when we are adults, and we appreciate them.

“So, it wasn’t a person?”

He shook his head no.

“Why would that matter?” he asked sincerely.

It would matter for many reasons, I thought.

But I could see what was confusing. We say things – and people – are dumb and stupid all the time.

We do it to be funny, to be mean, to be hateful, and even when we are just irritated by them.

Mama has always taken offense when I have commented something she said was dumb or stupid.

“I am not stupid,” she said.
“I didn’t say you were,” I reply.

“You said my reaction was stupid; that’s the same thing.”
“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is.”
In my mind, it wasn’t but most of our communication is the other person’s perception of what we said. If we are belittling them or at least make them feel like we are making fun of them, odds are they won’t listen to us.

“I don’t like those words,” I told my child after thinking about some of the heavier implications.  

He was confused; they have been words he’s heard me say.


“Because calling someone dumb or stupid is not nice,” I said. “Someone can’t help that.”

“They can’t?” he asked.

“No, they can’t. Dumb traditionally speaks more to their intellect, or capacity to learn.  Not everyone learns at the same speed or level. So, I really don’t like that word at all.”

He understood that part.

“What about stupid?” he asked. “Is it the same?”

I took a deep breathe. In my mind, stupid was different. Stupid could mean someone was choosing to be ignorant despite the information that had been presented to them.

Stupid, I explained, had some application in certain circumstances as long as it was used to address an action or behavior and not a person.

He nodded.
“So, it is better to call someone’s actions stupid but not the person. And never dumb.”

“Right,” I said. “But it would just be better if we didn’t use it at all. We need to think about how we would feel if someone said that to us.”

Perhaps, if we did that, none of our words would have a hurtful sting.


The missing ingredient

“Old woman, I cannot read your recipe,” is how I began many a phone call to Granny after I moved away.

“What does it say, old gal?” she would ask.

“I don’t know. You have the worst penmanship I have ever seen.”

“Maybe if you had paid attention when I was making it, you wouldn’t need the recipe,” she commented.

I sighed.

Granny’s idea of baking would probably drive modern day bakers and chefs crazy.

She didn’t really use measuring cups or spoons, preferring to eyeball her ingredients, a cardinal sin in baking.

“You are supposed to use exact measurements,” I told her once.

She gave me a sideways glance and ignored my comment.

When I married, I wanted to have her best recipes with me so I could continue some of her traditions, so I asked her to write them down.



“You heard me. I said no. I ain’t giving you my recipes. They mine.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“They mine. I ain’t writing them down. I ain’t never wrote ‘em down – someone could steal ‘em that way. And I ain’t about to start either.”

Steal her recipes? Did she not know that people could find recipes for things practically anywhere? To Granny, her recipes were sacred and top secret; surely no one else could be trusted with the power to make a biscuit.

Still, I was shocked. Was she really not going to share her recipes with me?

Maybe I should have wrote it down when I was with her, but it never occurred to me that she would not me give a recipe.

I also was a little hurt. Granny had been the one who taught me how to cook, standing me in a chair beside her or sitting me on the table as she sifted flour, patted out biscuits, or mixed cake batter. How could she take away something so precious she and I had always bonded over?

“One. You can have one,” she announced one day.

“One what?”

“One recipe of mine. Choose wisely.”

I felt like Indiana Jones being told to choose the cup that was the Holy Grail in the Last Crusade.

I thought about it for a minute.

“I want your biscuit recipe,” I said.

“What? Are you kidding me? You’ve been making biscuits with me since you were three; if you don’t know how to make biscuits 20 years later, you don’t need to be in the kitchen. Choose another one.”

“But I can’t remember what you put in them,” I said earnestly. Everyone raved about her biscuits; I wanted rave-worthy biscuits, too.

She frowned, partly in disappointment that I could not remember and partly in the fact she was conceding her own rule and going to give me two recipes.

“Alright, I will give you the biscuit one, too, but it is so simple it is ridiculous,” she said. “What else do you want?”

I thought a little longer. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle her coconut cake recipe; that involved too many steps. Things like pot roast or her golden fried chicken were not at the top of my list either. I wanted something that when I made it, people proclaimed it tasted just like Helen’s.

“Your chocolate pound cake recipe,” I declared brazenly.

She inhaled sharply. “You want me to write all that down?”

I nodded.

“Alright. I will. But it’s gonna take some time. I ain’t even got it wrote down; I just do it from memory, something you should be able to do.”

“That’s the one I want, Granny,” I said.

She nodded. “And that’s the one you will get.”

A few days later, the smell of the chocolate pound cake permeated the house and she handed me two index cards, one smudged with chocolate.

“I had to make one, so I’d know what all I put in it,” she said. “Don’t you go being like that woman that sold that high-dollar cookie recipe. You sell my recipes and I will sue you.”

Gleefully, I tucked the cards into my purse for safe keeping and went to eat the fruits of her labor.

It wasn’t until about a month later, when I pulled them out that I noticed something was missing.  I called her.
“Old woman, this makes no sense.”

“It should make perfect sense.”
“Well, it doesn’t,” I protested. “You only have flour, Crisco, and water or milk. No measurements.”

“It depends on how many biscuits you want to make. You should know that part. Now I gotta go, the Wheel is on, but you call me back if you need to. At 7:30.”

The next day I called her to tell her the dough did not turn out right.

 “You gotta get your hands in the dough,” Granny said.

“That’s gross,” I protested.

“You want biscuits? You gotta get your hands in there. Did you ever see me mix dough with a spoon? No, you gotta get your hands a little dirty if you want to cook.”

It took me a few tries – and several phone calls and a reminder from Granny about her super top-secret biscuit trick she omitted off the recipe – but soon, I was a biscuit baking master.

I should have known if she called that recipe easy her chocolate pound cake one would be a doozy.

Every time I made her cake, it involved staying on the phone with Granny.

“I couldn’t read a word the woman wrote,” I told Mama. “And what I could read, I couldn’t understand. She had just ‘cocoa powder’ or ‘butter’ but didn’t put down how much.”

Mama laughed softly. “Well, Kitten, if Granny used butter, more than likely it was one of two measurements: the whole stick or the whole pound. For a cake, go with a pound, just to be safe.

“And her leaving off the actual measurements was just her way of making you have to call her every time you made it so she would talk to you.”

“Yeah,” I said, finally understanding some of the Redhead Prime’s stubbornness.

Granny kept me in the kitchen with her just a little bit longer.