Driving home on a dreary October day, my phone vibrated with a new email. My niece was drafting essays for her college application and could I please read them and suggest edits. As my husband steered the car along the leaf-paved streets, I pecked a quick reply, holding my phone like a squirrel grasping a nut. Yes, of course, I typed, I was honored just to be asked.
There were three essays attached to the original email, expounding on the same types of inquires that have been asked of high school seniors since the School of Athens was being committed to the walls of the Stanza. But one caught my eye and pestered me as if a gnat had flown into it: What is your favorite word and why? It made me angry. After all, it’s a trick question, like the “what is your worst quality?” question thrown like a discus to your gut during a job interview. There’s no right way to answer it. Or, at least, no good way.
I read the essay. It was well written and carefully thought out. The words were right, the length was appropriate. But somehow, I knew my niece been ensnared in a trap. Admissions Committee members would read this and while they were apt to be pleased with the Strunk And White of it, it would not nudge into their brains and be memorable. This was not the fault of my niece, but the blunder of the very question itself.
I looked out of the window parallel to my laptop and stared at the Autumn trees. Nature was putting on her yearly pageant, dolling up branches in goldenrod, burgundy and emerald. What if they’d asked me at that moment, Which leaf is your favorite, and why? Could there be a way to answer? All the different shapes and colors and various states of animation. Could it be the one spinning like a top, cork-screwing down to the grass? Or should my favorite be the finely toothed leaves that eddied in the air as if on water, back and forth, layer upon layer, until softly sashaying onto the lawn? I search the branches, glittering as if sequins, but my eyes did not alight on just one answer.
The answer is, of course, that sometimes a word is your favorite, because it’s perfect. It just sounds right, like cantilevered evokes an elbow-like bend as you utter it. Maybe it’s the right word because it’s short and you’re texting and shouldn’t be, but it’s fast so it’s okay. Maybe. Perhaps the word is sort of right, because it fits snuggly into the boxes of a crossword puzzle, but then it isn’t because it doesn’t properly adjoin to the word bisecting it.
To limit yourself to just one word, is blasphemy. I could be sad, but maybe I’m dejected, or blue or depressed or deflated or despondent. A favorite word changes minute to minute, emotion to emotion, diphthong to diphthong. Words are more like tissues, really meant for the moment and not preferable for multiple swipes in the air.
So what is the answer to the essay question, What is your favorite Word and why?: All of them… Because.