January 10, 2014

FREY: An obsession with words


---- — My obsession with words began when I was in elementary school.

While other children were playing outside in the fresh air, I was sitting inside at the dining room table perusing the dictionary.

I took great delight (and this somewhat troubling in retrospect) in scanning up and down random pages of Webster’s for words I had never seen or heard before.

This peculiar pastime brings me to spelling tests.

Spelling tests were the best. Everything about them threw me into a dizzying tailspin. Figuring out ways to remember them. Memorizing the definitions. Using them in sentences. Over the top, I tell you!

Weekly spelling tests began in first grade at Bennett Street Elementary School. They coincided with those charming Fun with Dick and Jane books of the “Look, Jane, look!” and “See Spot run” fame.

Much to my delight, spelling tests ended the last month of my senior year at Freehold High School. The words bellicose, ostentatious, sardonic, and sanguine are words I learned in high school and have since committed to memory.

Many of the hundreds of spelling tests I have taken over the years are packed away in boxes in the garage.

My husband says I need help.

Nevertheless, it was a thrill waiting for my teacher to verbalize each word, knowing full well that I would ace those spelling tests.

Preparing for the spelling words war was half the fun. My father and I would sit on the couch in the living room painstakingly going over each word. After my father said the word, I would recite the spelling out loud, over and over until they were all etched in my mind.

While in high school, I discovered the “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power” section in an issue of Reader’s Digest. Imagine my elation to find 20 words, each with four different definitions, all on the same page.

Example given; lachrymose — A. enthusiastic. B: over sentimental. C: laughable. D: tearful.

It was my job to choose the correct the answer (D: tearful).

It was also my job to rip those pages right out of the Reader’s Digest magazines, cloistering them away in envelopes and books all over the house. I kid you not. I am looking at some of those pilfered pages while happily foaming at the mouth as I write this column.

In one issue, Word Power author Peter Funk wrote the following: “Some people collect stamps or bells or ivory elephants. Why not make your hobby collecting words? You will find this pastime can become enthralling as well as practical.”

Words, Funk continued, will “stimulate new ideas, new interests, even new friendships.”

Seriously, could there be other people out there who might consider collecting words, who might also view this pastime as enthralling and practical?

Very few people know about my obsession with words, save for my poor children.

“The dictionary is your friend,” I announced repeatedly when they were children (and just last week, actually). No spell check, no in our house. Bah, I tell you!

British author Diane Setterfield put it this way: “There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you can not move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”

In closing, it is off to the dining room I go with dictionary in hand. I can not wait for those words to pierce my skin and work their magic.

Again, my husband says I need help.

And ... it would appear that I do.

Alvia Lewis Frey is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at