In her own words: There oughta be a word for that!

Retired English Professor Helen Mackay ponders on the meaning of words, particularly when it comes to describing those "things" that are dear to us.


I am faced with what should be a simple and meaningful assignment for my memoir-writing class: “Focus on things that are important to us. Be prepared to share an insight about your things.” My memories drift pleasurably across Grandmother’s carnival glasses, my turtle collection, my 70-something years’ worth of photo albums, my wall-to-wall shelves of books. “Things????”

My American Heritage Dictionary lists 19 different applications of the word “thing.” I steel myself: “My most significant th–, th–, th–…” I can’t do it. English teacher mode takes over. Scratch that.

“My most significant possessions.” Too cold. The American Heritage will surely help here. No. The only meaning given for possessions in the sense of things is “wealth or property.” Somehow the picture of my granddaughter with a finger up her nose doesn’t seem to fit, adorable though it is.

Okay. How about “memento,” which seems to be getting warmer. AHD calls it “a reminder of the past; a keepsake.” (My mother, who occasionally falls prey to malapropisms, once called these “momentums.”) Most of the “things” (okay, I said it) which are deeply significant to me are linked to the past. But “memento” has picked up an unfortunate connotation of the cheap teacup with a picture of St. Paul’s on it, “Made in the Philippines” stamped on the bottom.

At this desperate moment, I fall back on my well-worn standby, Roget’s Thesaurus. It has served generations of college students with synonyms when they have already used “decision” twice in the same paragraph. (“Surely ‘adjudication’ will look impressive to the professor, even though I don’t know what it means.”)

Aha! “Heirloom.” AHD holds forth: “a valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations.” Considering that no one but me is likely to want the photo of our beagle Shorty with his crooked tail, maybe that doesn’t apply. Somehow “heirloom” sounds more like Great Aunt Hildegard’s ruby brooch.

“Belongings.” Although AHD gives impressive synonyms (appurtenance?), the word has a homely ring to it, of frying pans, old deck shoes and the mysterious keys that don’t fit anything, but you’re afraid to throw them away. Roget forges on: property, chattel, personal effects. No, no and no. The last one sounds a bit morbid. Surely “personal effects” are what gets put into a bag when the body goes to the morgue.

The synonyms begin to shade into the religious realm—”relic”—which reminds me of the medieval relish for bones, sold, for example, as the actual finger bone of St. John the Baptist. I even see an apparently quite straight-faced assertion that “lares and penates” (the humble little household gods for ancient Romans) may be used as a synonym for one’s cherished possessions. Those objects which lie nearest to my heart do transcend more mundane kinds of value, perhaps taking on something of the aura of the sacred. Will that work?

Unfortunately, I have a very clear recollection of the episode from Virgil’s “Aeneid” in which the hero Aeneas flees burning Troy, carrying on his back his frail elderly father Anchises, who in turn clutches to his sunken bosom the family’s lares and penates. Aeneas holds the hand of his young son, Ascanius, leaving his poor wife Creusa to trot along behind. This male pyramid, with the lares and penates at the top, is highly symbolic of the ancient Roman way of thinking. But my sympathy with Creusa takes off the luster from the term “lares and penates” for my own cherished items.

One source estimates there are between a quarter and a third of a million distinct words in the English language. Why, then, is there no word for an object that has extreme significance to an individual, not for monetary, practical, or even aesthetic value, but because it satisfies some deep need within us, reflects perhaps some aspect of our identity? No wonder the assigned topic simply shrugs its figurative shoulders. Things?