Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cantilever (Wok Blog Entry #3: Words that are and should be)

And then there are those words that hang about in one's brain...undefined but unforgotten.  Words are like that.  Haphazard.  Random.  You pick them up like playing cards in a game of 52 Card Pick-Up, fumbling to shove them into some semblance of a deck as you replay the precipitating conversation in your head and try to figure out how you were so easily duped.  Order doesn't matter; just the rough shape of the thing as you thrust it back at your snickering companion/parent/aunt

But always there's a card, one thin slip of cardboard that gets missed, caught between floorboard and trim, in the shadow of a coffee table, under your own foot as you turn to scan for strays.

That's the one you put in your pocket later that day after everyone has gone home or gone to bed, the one you slip into a book as a bookmark or the bottom drawer of a jewelry box.  That's the one you remember.

I have a few words like that. 

Cantilever is one.  I picked it up off of a TV show years ago.  Some cheesy kids' show that is otherwise forgettable.  The protagonist of the story had a poetry assignment for school and decided to cheat, allowing a computer to do the work for her.  The end product was a seemingly random string of words and phrases that nonetheless shoved her into the spotlight as a genius kid poet thereby creating the ethical dilemma that was the basis of that particular episode.

I don't remember the outcome of the particular plot but, given the genre of "cheesy kids' show," I imagine it involved a confession and some semi-parental warning regarding honesty.

I took from it Cantilever.

And it has been in my head ever since. 

As a kid, I didn't take my words to the dictionary.  That was sort of like cheating and it was a pain.  The family dictionary was old, utilized mostly for Scrabble games with my father (the one board-game he actually seemed to enjoy) and, at least according to him, was missing words.  And I had given up asking the family to define my words for me. 

I have a clear memory of being maybe 8 years old and reading one of the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary.  They were early favorites but I was still young and struggling with what today would seem very simple vocabulary.  I found myself pausing every few words to ask someone what this word meant, that word.  After a few indulgent (read longsuffering) replies, I was eventually told to read around the words I didn't know or get the dictionary, and figure it out myself.   I was assured I would enjoy the book much more that way. 

For the most part, I did.

But I developed the habit, not necessarily a good one, of creating my own definitions for things and/or leaving some words rattling about my head undefined.  Cantilever was one.  I had always suspected, given the context of its usage in the show, that it referenced curvature or possibly refraction of some sort.  After all, its usage in the show was a bit of computer-spawned poetry:  cantilevered rainbow.

When I realized I was at "C" of the blog challenge, Cantilever is the first word that came to mind.  It had been rattling around in my head for years.  I like the sound of it, the feel of it in my mouth.  Yes, words have a feel to them, the way your throat closes at the back to form the hard "C", the subtle shift of tongue between the "n" and "l" sounds, the puff of air required to make the "t" in between. 

And I was curious to know, once and for all, what the word meant. 

Cantilever.  A long piece of wood, metal, etc. that sticks out from a wall or other structure to support something above it like a balcony or a bridge.  ( 

No curves.  No refraction.  A support.  The beam beneath the bridge; the arms of a cheerleader locked against the gravity-weight of her teammate; the dictionary definition rising up against a failing vocabulary.

I can live with this.

I can love it.


Blogger's Note:  I struggled with this one.  Cantilever is the word that came immediately to mind for "C".  It has been bumping around in my brain for years.  But what was it about 'Cantilever?'  In the end, I decided it was the sheer number of years I've gone without really knowing what it means.  I think I got a bit rambly, but I figure that a blog - if a blog indeed has a purpose other than the obvious shout-out to the world at large - is an opportunity for a bit of self-exploration and maybe a bit of self-education while I'm at it.  Why not, right?


  1. You love words, that is apparent. I know cantilever because of its connection to the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and yes, it's unusual enough to have stuck. Once one learns a word, it is reinforced in the literary environment in which we read and write. I often write and use certain more obscure words because it is what occurs to me. But I then look it up in Word to be sure that my usage is correct!

    1. I have to remind myself to double-check...have been caught out a few times on the issue. :-)

  2. Your words are a marvel to read both in choice of topic, and execution of vocabulary and phrasing on the page. I am enjoying your blog very much.

    I envision a cantilevered rainbow to be held up by a tree, or cloud, or pot of gold.

  3. Anna, I love this post. It took me back to my classroom days when I would come across a word while reading aloud and shout out to my students, "Listen to this beautiful word! I love words!" They would look at me and shake their heads in a there-she-goes-again fashion.

    So I am not surprised that a word like cantilever has stuck with you!

    Have you read Pat Conroy's terrific book, My Reading Life? Here's a quote from it: "“I grew up a word-haunted boy. I felt words inside me and stored them wondrous as pearls. I mouthed them and fingered them and rolled them around my tongue."
    Thank you.

    1. Awesome quote Annis! I haven't read it but will have to now. it!

  4. I'm just catching up with some of the blog posts, but was so happy to see your "C" word. The way you describe saying it and how it's needed to be recognized all these years.

    (Plus you brought back wonderful memories of reading Beverly Cleary. I just loved reading her books to my kids. Truth is, I wanted to write just like her when I grew up!)

    Words are amazing. They are all individual sound-bites with iindividual/ncredible meanings.

    1. A fellow Beverly Cleary fan! If I could write like her, such wonderful feel-good stories...I'd be very happy indeed!

      Thanks so much for commenting! :-)