We took Liza to an exhibit of kites at the Visual Arts Center today, and it was remarkable. There were around 200 on display, and they came from China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. They were from the collection of Elizabeth Morrow, an art historian and professor someplace in Missouri, and Professor Morrow has personally flown all of them. Some of the more elaborate kites were a good 30 or 40 feet long, and most of them were beautiful. The title of the exhibit is “Art on a String,” and those things really are art. Liza was a lot more taken with the kites than I thought she would be, and her enthusiasm caught the attention of a lady who was giving an interview about the exhibit while Liza was telling Beth and me how much she liked different ones of them.
We knew we wanted to take Liza to the exhibit today, so I bought a plastic kite (with string) for 3 bucks earlier in the week. Putting it together was a cinch (unlike the tissuepaper kites I struggled with as a kid), and we had it flying in no time. Liza had never played with a kite before, and she loved it. We did that until dinner was ready, and after dinner she asked if we could “go kiting” again. Neither Beth nor I had used the word “kiting”; in fact, I had never heard it before. Liza essentially invented a word, used it correctly, and communicated to me and her grandmother precisely what she wanted to do.
What’s remarkable about this isn’t Liza’s fluency in English or her linguistic aptitude. What’s remarkable to me is that the English language allows us to invent words all the time without so much as a second thought, and those words communicate perfectly well what we have in mind. We’ve seen this phenomenon at work recently with concepts associated with the Tea Party political movement. Apart from arcane slang usage, terms like “teabagging” and “teabagger” were unknown in American English. The first time they were used in political discourse, though, everybody who heard them knew what they referred to. I became aware of the slang meanings of the terms when I heard them discussed on NPR [formerly National Public Radio], and I’m sure the rank and file adherents to the Tea Party had no idea of their unsavory meanings.
William Shakespeare invented several thousand words that we use every day without knowing their histories, and today Liza joined Shakespeare’s ranks as a linguistic innovator. She’s “four-and-three-quarters” years old, but you and I do the same thing every day. Ain’t English grand?