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Words are all we have

During James’ long and distinguished teaching career (that’s how he describes it, anyway), he once ran a competition for his pupils. The aim was to invent a new word for the thin, inner peelings that come off a banana, after you have peeled away the skin but while you are eating the fruit. You know the bits I mean? The stringy bits that are annoying to eat.

The prize was a banana. The winning entry, sadly, he has forgotten, so I doubt if it has yet entered the Oxford English Dictionary!

I learnt a new word recently too – escutcheon. In case it's new to you too, an escutcheon is the little cover that hangs over a keyhole in a door. It’s probably designed to block drafts, or perhaps prying eyes, from the room behind the keyhole.

The word must have been with us more than a century, but it’s not been part of my life until the last couple of months. It’s not just that I didn’t know the word, it’s that I didn’t know that there even was a word, or a name, for this object.

But, of course, there is a word for pretty much everything, it seems, and I knew living here was going to improve my gardening and painting skills, but I hadn’t expected it to expand my vocabulary.

Renovating Nutsford House over the last six months has involved sanding, corking and painting each side of every internal door. And there are a lot of doors, 22 in total, all of which are original. The feeling of restoration involved in bringing them back to their best is very pleasing. Over the past few months, my Dad has restored the locks on a lot of the upstairs doors, and by sanding the black door handles and escutcheons we discovered that they are actually made of a beautiful rosewood.

The house itself hasn’t really been changed structurally since it was built in the 1920s, so it’s the details that make the work on it worthwhile. It’s the rosewood escutcheon, the font on the Aga, the red floor tiles in the hall that are important. The traces of mustard coloured paint that hint at more vibrant tastes in interior decoration in the 1930s. William Morris said, “The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of everyday life” and my life is definitely a lot richer for observing more closely the detail of what surrounds me.

And being able to describe that detail in words is also important. In 1984, George Orwell showed us how language has the power to shape how we see the world - the idea that we wouldn't know what freedom was if we didn’t have a word for it. Of course this applies to concepts and feelings more than it does to objects, but how we name things matters too.

By naming things you notice them. This really comes into play in the natural world. I am more likely to notice the birds, lichen, flora and fauna that I can name. The words help me see.

So, words really do matter. The escutcheons are important. And perhaps the stringy bits on bananas too, if only we could find a word for them. All suggestions gratefully received!

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