One of the many great joys of reading The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket is the cleverly disguised vocabulary lessons throughout the entire series.
The oft repeated phrase, a word which here means, followed by a definition of the word just used, introduces a word or phrase that might be unfamiliar to the child reading the story. The author doesn’t just define words. He also explains common expressions and phrases.
For example, here is an explanation of the phrase “feet of clay.”
“Feet of clay” is an expression which refers to a person who appears to be honest and true, but who turns out to have a hidden weakness or a treacherous secret. If someone turns out to have feet of clay, your opinion of them may topple, just as a statue will topple if its base turns out to be badly constructed.
I love how succinct and clear this definition is, and how he even explains why this expression make sense. Even better, the character about which this phrase is spoken sits in a chair with actual clay around his feet that he says is healing clay for his injured feet, a clue that he does indeed have feet of clay. How sly is that?
Usually, I am grateful for all of this explanation of vocabulary for the sake of my learning children, but this weekend, as I finished up the series right behind Mary Polly I also learned a new word.
I am sort of ashamed to say that I was hereto unfamiliar with the word detritus.
At first, it appeared that the Baudelaire orphans were still in the middle of the ocean, as all the children could see was a flat and wet landscape stretching out in all directions, fading in to the gray morning mist. But as they peered over the side of their ruined boat, the children saw that the water was not much deeper than a puddle, and this enormous puddle was littered with detritus, a word which here means “all sorts of strange items.”
Of course, this is not the dictionary definition of detritus, but as the author continues to use this word in context throughout the book, the reader can have no doubt as to the meaning of it. It sort of becomes subconscious, which is how meanings of words should be. Not just spouted definitions. I clearly remember memorizing definitions of vocabulary words in high school, words for which I had absolutely no context. I had this friend who was (and is) insanely brilliant. She already knew all the definitions of the words–in fact, she confessed to me later that our lazy teacher had just let her make out the test because he was certain that she already knew the words. She would help me study by coming up with contexts for the words. She would make sentences or explain the roots or show me how one part of the word could help me understand what it meant. It was amazing…both that she knew all the words and that she could explain them this way to me. I remember being in awe that she didn’t just have them memorized but that she had assimilated them. (In fact, it suddenly occurs to me that she could actually be Lemony Snicket.)
I guess we never got around to the word detritus.
Now that I know it, the strangest thing is that it is popping up everywhere. Seriously.
On Saturday when I was reading Comfort Me with Apples, Ruth Reichl cleared away the detritus from the night before. She lived for a long time in a communal setting in which there was always detritus to be cleared.
Then yesterday, in the Shaping of A Life, Phyllis Tickle was cleaning the detritus from her husband’s lab coats while he was a medical student.
So I am left wondering, has this strange word been in every book i have read for a long time? Have I just been sort of skipping over it? Am i only seeing it everywhere because of the constant mention of the detritus in the ocean of the Baudelaires’ end? Perhaps.
Now I have my own detritus to attend to, in the form of breakfast dishes.