Word of the Week
“I don’t go to the Acme anymore,” said my Aunt Fran to my mother, while I was lounging on the sofa, letting them have a nice visit. “They’re too dear.” I raised my head and furrowed my brows. What on earth? She repeated that same judgment. “I used to go there for the butcher’s shop, and they’re just too dear.”
I tell you, my good reader, I was at least twenty years old, and I’d never heard the word used that way before. My mother didn’t respond in kind, though she agreed, and I saw that they both understood what was meant. Aunt Fran was complaining that the prices were too high. As for that Acme, it doesn’t exist anymore, though I used to like going there when I was a little boy tagging along after Mom. One year, they got the idea to pass out free hardcover novels for children if you bought a certain amount of groceries, and that’s how I ended up reading The Swiss Family Robinson, The Call of the Wild, The Jungle Book, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, and, among others, Treasure Island. Apparently, the Acme at that time was not too dear, and I did love those books dearly. How the Coyote of happy memory bought all those delightfully dangerous and destructive things from the Acme Company, like jet-powered roller skates, catapults, bird-tracking robots, and capsules of nitro-glycerin, I’ll never know. They must have been in a back room behind the meat and the produce. We do know that the Coyote paid dearly for them, not so much when he purchased them but when he tried to put them to use. Chuck Jones wrote that one of the hard-and-fast rules governing the Coyote’s failure to catch the Road-Runner for his lunch was that it could be attributed only to his own foolish decisions, or to the failure of the products from the Acme Company.
The word dear is an ancient one in our language, and it always did have a double sense: you consider something dear, that is, precious, expensive, to be treasured, because it is dear to you, you love it. Its meaning as precious was the fundamental one, as we can see from its cousin in German, teuer, which means costly, but often in a good sense. Tolkien was no doubt playing on the double meaning when he had the greedy Gollum give over his heart and soul to the ring of power he had found: “My Preciousss!” Shakespeare also played on the double meaning, when Portia tries to get her beloved husband Brutus tell her what is wrong, what’s been keeping him up late at night. He doesn’t want to let her in on the plot to kill Julius Caesar, because he doesn’t want to trouble her or to put her in danger. But she wants to share everything important in her husband’s life, and not just to “dwell in the suburbs.” “You are my true and honorable wife,” says Brutus, “as dear to me as are the ruddy drops / That visit my sad heart.” He will tell her.
Eventually, the phrase “my dear” came to be a mildly affectionate form of address, as when the detective Holmes has to explain to his good friend how a dog that was a real dog and no demon helped him reason out the crime: “Elementary, my dear Watson.” If his deduction was elementary, Watson and the rest of us could hardly make it to kindergarten!
Now, people are always inventing new ways to say things. From our word dear came the word dearling, that is, darling. The -ling suffix didn’t always suggest something diminutive: an earthling is just somebody who dwells on earth, and the word dates from Shakespeare’s time, long before science fiction came around; Old English yrthling meant a plowman, somebody who has to turn over the earth. There are about two dozen words in English with the -ling in them, usually having to do with small animals: duckling, gosling, nestling, hatchling, weanling, yearling, and so on. Sometimes the words describe young persons, as with stripling, a lad who hasn’t filled out yet, so that he’s still as skinny as a sapling. Or they have a belittling force, as with shaveling, which originally meant a young friar who’s just had the crown of his head shaved, but then came to mean a kid who’s just beginning to shave.
But really, do we have any substitute for dear, in its full-hearted sense? “You are very dear to me,” we say. And not all the good things from the Acme storehouse can count as more than a rusty penny by comparison.
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