There’s a part of the language center in my brain that I imagine as a large filing cabinet — one of the metal ones with drawers that stick. Tucked inside dog-eared folders are the words I never use, but which pop up like song lyrics. I spent an entire day wondering where spanghew came from and why I was thinking of it, and it never got used in anything I wrote or said. It was just my mantra for the day. Ah, but here it is now, sparkling in its obscurity, begging for you to look up its definition.
My sister and I share a general abhorrence for any food that is slimy in texture. At a restaurant together, with a set meal, we were served a dish that is similar to potato, which gets blended into a viscous soup. It is served over rice. The entire time I was in Japan I was careful not to offend anyone, but I was pretty sure I was not going to like this dish, and didn’t want to leave any untouched. As Naomi served it up for everyone, I said, “sukoshi,” and made a little gesture with my thumb and index finger to indicate “small.” She understood and spooned out a tiny bit.
Sukoshi is the word for “a little bit” in Japanese that I learned 20 years ago when I studied some “get around words” for my first trip to Japan. Like most of what I used that trip, which included "Otearai wa doko desu ka?”, the word was relegated to that filing cabinet. When I needed it most, in that critical moment of being served a food I might not finish, there it was, like a superhero in a bright red cape.
I probably could have finished the dish. The entire meal was delicious. Oishii. That’s a word I’ll use often.
Yesterday I decided I’d like to have prints made of the photos I took on our trip. I uploaded them all to Google Drive, thinking that would connect to the drugstore’s photo center kiosk. It did not. Google Photos was available, that celestial super-cloud of data I never think about, or I could use Facebook, Instagram, or connect my phone directly to the kiosk with my power cord. Who takes their power cord with them everywhere? I went to another drug store, which had no photo center. Then I ended up at the store of the Living Dead: Wal-Mart.
I thought I’d just breeze through the aisles of zoned-out shoppers by taking the superhighway lane in the middle of the store, straight to the back. My goal was electronics, where the photo kiosks were. A young man at a booth chirped, “Ma’am, may I ask you a quick question?” and I replied, “Nope, I’m on the run.”
“On the run?” From what, exactly? I have never used that phrase before, but the panic center, the part that hates dealing with nonsense, called it up and without thinking, spanghewed it out of my mouth. It worked. The guy backed off whatever his sales pitch was. I didn’t have to talk with anyone who called me “Ma’am.” I wouldn’t feel obligated to buy The Thing I Didn’t Need or Want.
When you’re in a pinch, facing an awkward social situation, the words may just come to you, unbidden. These are the words you didn’t know you knew, the ones waiting inside untouched folders, the ones whose definitions might need to be researched, but oh, they’ll do the trick as you make your great escape.