Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Muskrat Mystery

In honor of Lee Lofland's comment on that last post, I will tell a fascinating little story that is all about the mystery of language acquisition.

My sons both talked early, and my younger son, at about two, once sat on my hip while we walked through the back yard and looked at our spring tulips (which were sparse, because mother was a sub-par gardener). Graham's eyes, though, were on our eighty-year-old neighbor, who puttered around in his yard, cigar clamped in his mouth, doing the serious gardening that I hadn't been able to achieve.

We went back into the house, Graham looking thoughtful. "Mom, will Joe always have a muskrat?"

"What? You mean a mustache?" I asked.

He looked at me, disappointed at my inability to understand. "No--a muskrat!" he insisted.

We both shrugged, and the puzzle remained undeciphered. It's so hard to be two and have an obtuse parent. :)

Later, though, Graham said something about seeing someone with a cigarette, which he pronounced "cig-rat." And then, slowly, it dawned on me. "Cig-rat," was obviously in the same family as "musk-rat." Graham knew that what Joe was smoking was a two syllable word, and he knew that it was similar to a cigrat. He'd obviously heard the word muskrat somewhere, so his brain made a very clever connection: the small white ones are cigrats, and the big brown ones are muskrats!

So a muskrat, I finally determined, was a cigar.

The sad thing was that once I discussed this with Graham, he never called it a muskrat again, because his brain had captured the proper term. He didn't appreciate thinking that people would chuckle at his tentative vocabulary, and so he fiercely self-corrected anything that he perceived was not entirely correct.

But I, in my nostalgia, still like to think of them as muskrats, which by the way are not good for your health. :)

(Art link here.)


Anonymous said...

FUNNY! Julia I know you are a good mystery writer, but when I read these nostaglia pieces I always wonder if you don't have another calling. These pieces are always wonderful.

Mary Beth

Julia Buckley said...

My parents say the same thing. Interesting . . .

Thanks for the encouragement! I guess I just have to find my format. :)