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The smell, taste of words

I don't believe there is a funnier word in the English language than "lugubrious." It does not roll off the tongue like other smoother-sounding words. To the uninitiated it almost has a certain obscene quality to it, or perhaps it might even be a word found in a medical text, so serious does it sound.

But its meaning is neither obscene nor medical in nature. It means to be full of sadness or sorrow, especially in an exaggerated or serious way. It's still complicated though. It's not a word that can be broken down into its Latin roots like, say, the word aqueduct. Aqua means water and duct refers to a pipe or tube that carries an object. Put them together and you get the invention used by the Romans to carry water from faraway places to where people lived. It is simple linguistics.

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Not so lugubrious, or lugubriously the adverb and lugubriousness the noun. It was introduced to me by J. Marshall Bruce, who taught me English during my senior year at Boys' Latin School. Mr. Bruce, as any of his students would tell you, was a master of the polysyllabic word. He believed the more a word twisted your tongue — and piqued your imagination and curiosity — the better writer and reader you would become.

Mr. Bruce had an excellent education. He was a graduate of Princeton University and took additional courses as part of a fellowship at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He emerged from his studies with a wonderful sense of how language, when used correctly, could move readers and conversation to places it rarely ventured. He knew about the smell of words, if there is such a thing, how they tasted in a sentence and whether they fit with all of the other ingredients that made up literature and adult conversation. And his students were privileged to have him for that one year when we went to places many of us never thought we were capable of experiencing.

Mr. Bruce began teaching in the 1940s when playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were just starting to appear on the scene: He taught us "All My Sons," "Death of a Salesman," "Camino Real," and "A Streetcar Named Desire," each one of them holding an exalted place today in the canon of American literature and theater. He also embraced writers such as Carson McCullers and schooled us in the Shakespearean classics, particularly Hamlet. His course on the Danish prince seeking to avenge his father's death was more intense, thought-provoking and demanding than most college courses I took.

Throughout all of his instruction, he taught us about the wonderful nuance and elegance of language and the precision of words. When used properly, words could take anyone to any place, any time, and upon arrival, you could experience joy unlike anything that could be found on television or in the movies. He believed that words tapped into the imagination, unlike movies and TV, which because they were more visual, titillated (another one of his favorite words) the senses rather than nourished them. Words, when used properly, he felt, were the most wonderful thing a man could possess, and he was right.

We used to meet occasionally on weekends that year for lunch at a local luncheon counter where he urged me to seek truth through words. I followed his advice, enrolling in history and journalism classes as a college student and then working for a number of years in journalism and public relations. Eventually, after two decades spent in those two fields, I decided to make a career switch and became a teacher.

Like all teachers, sometimes I question whether I am getting through to my students: do I make sense? Am I translating my passion for my subject in ways they can understand and use? Most importantly, am I instilling in them the same interest in the elegant turn of a phrase that describes something so perfectly that nothing can top it? Do they leave my classroom with a desire above all else to be eloquent when they write and speak, something Mr. Bruce strongly encouraged in me and my classmates. On good days, I think I do. On not so good days, I know I tried, and will try again tomorrow harder, more courageously, and more eloquently than the previous day. That's what we teachers do, and when we are successful, there is no need to feel lugubriously at all. We have achieved our goal.

Lee McC. Kennedy is a history teacher at the Boys' Latin School of Maryland; his email is lkennedy@boyslatinmd.com.

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