The miracle of language: When one ‘usually salted and buttered’ kernel is worth a mouthful of words

My 5-year-old grandson read a complete book to me the other day. It was a children’s book, and I admit that before he had finished, I was rather bored with the story; but I was reminded what a miracle it is that children learn language.

Mostly, they build their vocabularies by matching the word to their visual experience. A dog is a dog; a bird is a bird; a hamburger is a hamburger. In time, though it’s much harder, they learn abstract words, such as angry, or unhappy, or glad.

Exactly how hard it is to learn the meaning of a word unless we can demonstrate it is illustrated by Sydne Ames of Lake Elsinore. Referring to my column on the definition of time , Ames writes:

“Reminded me of when we had a German lad in our house shortly after his arrival in the U.S. He spoke some schoolboy English and was determinedly learning more of our language as fast as possible.


“Someone mentioned popcorn. As usual, when he heard a new word, he asked the simple question: ‘What is popcorn?’

“There were seven of us to tell him. We used words, we used gestures, we used charades. Someone even drew a picture. We looked up the word in three dictionaries. He was no closer to understanding than when he first asked the question. He wanted to know and we wanted him to know. A most frustrating time.

“Finally someone went out to the store. . . . We never had a popcorn party with more laughs. Yes, he liked it.

“Imagine you are talking to someone who has never seen popcorn. How would you describe it?”


Well, first, let’s see what they found when they looked it up in a dictionary:

The New World Dictionary of the English Language says: “popcorn. n. 1. A variety of Indian corn with small ears and hard, pointed grains which pop open into a white puffy mass when heated. 2. the popped grains, usually salted and buttered for eating.”

The American Heritage Dictionary says: “popcorn. n. 1. A variety of corn, Zea mays everta , having hard kernels that burst to form white, irregularly shaped puffs when heated. 2. The edible, popped kernels of popcorn. (Contraction of popped corn .)”

Merriam-Webster’s unabridged says: “1. a. A variety ( Zea mays everta ) of Indian corn having small ears and small pointed or rounded kernels with very hard corneous endosperm that on exposure to heat are popped or everted by the explosion of the contained moisture and form a white starchy mass many times the size of the original kernel. b. The corn when popped.”


As you see, the definitions grow more specific and complex with each dictionary. Webster’s tells us several things we didn’t need to know. What do we care that the kernels of the unpopped corn have a very hard corneous endosperm, and that on heating, this endosperm is popped or “everted”?

To tell the truth, everted was not in my vocabulary. I had to look it up. It means overturned, or turned out.

Perhaps the best is the first one, which tells us that it is “grains which pop into a white puffy mass.”

Also, American Heritage’s “white, irregularly shaped puffs” isn’t too bad.


But Webster’s “white, starchy mass,” doesn’t give me that idea of puffiness, which is essential to popcorn.

I would say that popcorn is small, white, almost tasteless puffs that are salted and buttered to taste.

Still, to a person who had never seen popcorn, and had never tasted it, that definition might be far from the mark.

How would you define watermelon, which has a texture far different from that of any other melon?


New World doesn’t do too bad: “A large, round or oblong, edible fruit with a hard, green rind and juicy, pink or red pulp containing many seeds.”

I think it ought to add that that juicy, pink or red pulp is also sweet. No other melon is as sweet. Unless papaya is a melon? Is papaya a melon?

Can you imagine how hard it must be for a 3-year-old, coming to grips with this language of half a million words? But evidently it isn’t hard, really; they just listen and imitate and chatter away, making their funny mistakes, until somewhere along the line, at about 6, if they’re smart, they get the hang of it. At least they have a vocabulary for the world to which they have been exposed, and a sense of the kind of grammar they have heard.

There are some abstractions that a very small child probably can’t handle. What do you suppose they make of passion ? And what of infidelity ?


Joan Maturko, who teaches kindergarten at Jefferson School in Redondo Beach, asked her pupils for definitions to some very difficult words, with these dubious but interesting results:

Jealous--You’re mad. Someone is pretty and you’re not and you’re jealous of them.

Marriage--When he says you can kiss the bride. When a man comes and marries a lady.

Terminate--To kill something. When you die. An exterminator that kills termites.


Trouble--When you get in trouble with your dad and he spanks you. When it’s nighttime and you go to bed and your daddy told you to stay in bed and you don’t. Yet get into something that you can’t get into.

View--When you watch a movie. When you watch from a window at dawn.

It’s a very personal way of defining words. It depends on how the word affects you .

Popcorn, defined that way, is what you eat at the movies.