The Eyebrow and The Costumed Fish

When I was a little kid, I learned the difference between long and short vowel. The teachers explained that an ? (long I), found in words like mile and fine, were signified by a macron, or horizontal line, over the letter. And an ? (short I), found in words like mill and fin, were signified by a breve, or tiny u, over the letter.

Oddly enough, the mnemonic that formed for me was that “long I” sounded like “eye” and the macron was an eyebrow. I remember answering a question in class where the teacher asked how we knew the word in the dictionary was pronounced with a long I. Because of the eyebrow, I said. My response was met with laughter, both by the students and the teacher.

As any kid ridiculed by his peers, I turned red and felt ashamed. I abstained from answering questions that day and, possibly, the rest of the week. I walked home thinking of how silly I’d been, thinking the symbol was an eyebrow. It wasn’t the first time that my seemingly autonomic creative thinking had led to embarrassment. On a school trip to the Boston Aquarium, I pointed out what I knew to be a plecostomus—which my parents had in their freshwater aquarium, recognizable by a colorful pageantry of scales—as “a costumed fish,” simply because it rhymed.

It wasn’t until years later, when reading Harlan Ellison’s Slippage, that I realized this tendency wasn’t a defect at all. In an introduction by the author, Ellison says that he overheard someone talking about The New England Confectionery Company (NECCO)’s wafers, he initially heard “Necro Waiters.”  This mistake spawned a fantastically morbid short story about a recently dead person being forced to eat his sins before passing onward.

Ellison’s embrace of this shared talent proved to me that the discomfort I felt with the eyebrow and costumed fish was merely a child’s reaction to a natural inclination toward creative thinking. It’s this ability that drives my business and provokes me to seek unconventional and memorable design for corporate identities and advertising campaigns. And one day, if I’m blessed enough to have children remotely as awkward and quirky as I was, I know to nurture this trait.

Incidentally, should you find a copy of Ellison’s Slippage on a dusty shelf at Strand, I recommend it for Mefisto in Onyx alone (read it here).

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