Saturday, 17 December 2011

Common and self-admiration

As a young boy in primary school, my interest in reading was sustained by poring over Enid Blyton's books, particularly the Famous Five and Secret Seven series. Whenever I come across a new word, I would borrow my father's pocket-sized Collins English-Malay dictionary. That tiny book became my reference companion for a few years until my father, either on seeing my keen reading habit or wanting his own dictionary back, bought me a thick full-fledged dictionary published by Larousse. I was in awe when I received it as a present. It must have cost my father a bomb to buy it and I treasured it very much.

From reading Blyton, I went on to read more classical authors like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Reading Dickens was tough. He used so many words I didn't understand that I had to refer to the dictionary too often. This took out the fun in reading so I went back to reading mystery and adventure stories. The Three Investigators and The Hardy Boys were among my favourites. As I entered late teens, my reading scope expanded to include horror by Stephen King and spy thrillers by Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum. Most of the thrillers that I read are fast-paced and I can become so engrossed as to miss dinners and postpone sleep. Unputdownable, if there is such a word.

If I come across new words while reading such thrillers, I never stop to check their meaning in the dictionary. It spoils the momentum. Usually I just try to guess what they mean from the context of the sentence. Only after finishing the book would I flip the dictionary to check if my guess was right... but I'll do that only if I remember or if the word interests me. Sometimes I wouldn't bother... especially if I think the word is too complicated and that I'd never use it myself, either in speech or in writing. Sounds like I'm limiting my vocabulary, but hey... there are millions of words out there, so it's okay if we don't know a few.

I was listening to a classic song recently when I heard a particular word that I didn't know the meaning of. I googled the lyrics and part of it I reproduce here :

You drove me, nearly drove me, out of my head
While you never shed a tear
Remember, I remember, all that you said
You told me love was too plebeian
Told me you were through with me and...

The word that stumped me is plebeian. According to my dictionary, the word means something relating to ordinary people or the common folk. If used as a noun, it is a degrading word for someone of low social class. Now how's that for an insult.

Click on this link to have a listen to the Susan Boyle version of the song -> Cry Me A River

Ok then, for good measure, I'll give you another word that is in my `hard to understand' category - narcissistic. I'm having trouble even pronouncing it. I first came across this word in a novel but I can't remember the novel's title. It means having an obsession with one's own image and ego.

So there you have it - plebeian and narcissistic. Two words I doubt I'll ever use...


Al-Manar said...

When I started to learn English and began to make myself enjoy reading English novels, I needed a dictionary. My father never knew an English word except 'basikal', near enough, probably. So some wise guy told me that Chambers was THE dictionary. So I ordered one by post from a shop in KL. Lo and behold, I found out I needed a dictionary to understand that dictionry!

koolmokcikZ said...

Salaam Oldstock,

Coming from Malay medium, I started with Enid Blyton's Famous Five, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. Then Mills & Boons and Barbra Cartland before upgrading to Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins. And like you, I just couldn't be bothered to put down the book to look for meaning of unfamiliar words.

Those were the days.

Pak Zawi said...

Uncanny resemblance to my own experience while growing up and learning the English language in school. Only difference is that I was taught to jot down every new word that I found together with the sentence that includes the word. Later I found out I was emulating the author in my essays. 'The table was innocent of cloth' is an example.
While in form 5 I got hooked to Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason series. Due to that I had the burning desire to become a lawyer but it was never realized.
Thanks for bringing me down to memory lane.

mamasita said...

Hehehe..I always deduce the meanings..
Unless it's an order from my teacher to look up the meanings, I never bother.
Then my older siblings are also my 'walking dictionaries'..hehehe

p.s. Tumpang2!
Al-Manar; that's so kelakar!
Pak do look like a Perry Mason..:))

Oldstock said...

Pakcik Al-Manar,

Never used a Chamber's dictionary myself but I guess it must have been a very thick one, hehe...

My father, although not having any high level education, was quite active in writing, but more in areas of social service. He was the Setiausaha of the neighbourhood persatuan kebajikan and I remember him hitting on his typewriter on most evenings. He helps write letters for the local community - the sort that goes to formal authorities such as asking for scholarships, letters to the MP and the like. I guess part of my interest in writing comes from him.

Oldstock said...

Salam Koolmokcik,

Typical of girls to have Mills & Boon, heheh...

I've read only one Harold Robbins, strangely I can't remember which. Too vivid, for me at least. Yeah, those were the days...

Oldstock said...

Pak Zawi,

Yes, like you, my style of writing would emulate the author who's my favourite at that particular time. Sometimes my English teacher would comment on my essays, saying that the sentences are too long or that I should write in more active form. Bummer... I guess some teachers cannot understand the idea of style and creativity.

And touching on mamasita's comment pasal Perry Mason tu... ye lah, macam Raymond Burr ;-)

Oldstock said...

Mamasita, you have older siblings you can refer to... kira ok jugak. I am the eldest, so my brothers all have to refer to me :-)

Nowadays, it's so simple to do it online. Just highlight the particular word, right-click and google the meaning.

Fauziah Ismail said...

Salam Oldstock,
It was the same for me ... Not Mills and Boon books but Enid Blyton's Secret Seven and Thr Fsmous Five when I was growing up. Then I graduated to Ernest Hemingway, with my late father's copy of The Old Man and the Sea. I rummaged through the cupboard when I just started schooling and claimed the book as mine. I loved it to this day.
Victor Hugo is a favourite too. I once attempted to read
Hunchback of Notre Dame in French, but failed to finish it. It was too tedious as I was just picking up the language back then.
These days, its Jeffrey Archer. Somehow, I prefer British authors.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like me reading Rantau Sepanjang Jalan with dictionary by my side. After awhile, I just try to second-guess what the word is. Ditto for English novels.

If a word/phrase is particularly interesting-sounding, I will underline the said word/phrase and dog-ear at the bottom of the page so that I can go back to these when I am done.

Oldstock said...

Salam Fauziah,

Since you and I are fans of Enid Blyton, I'll tell you a secret. I finished reading all the Famous Five and Secret Seven books that were in my school library in double quick time.... so what to read next? I start to pick up her books on Malory Towers, the story about a girl's boarding school.

Ok now don't tell anybody else.. heheh..

Oldstock said...

Cara, you really did finish reading Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan? I didn't even make it half way.

A tough English novel to read is The Satanic Verses by Salam Rushdie. After the controversy caused by the publication of this book, I managed to get hold of a copy to find out for myself what the real issue was. It took me a few months to finish reading it because of so many start-stops. Now I can't even remember what the gist of the story is. And I don't think I want to re-read it.

doc said...


Famous 5, Secret 7, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew - hey, i feel right at home here!

after that, it's J Archer & S Sheldon for me.

but that's also how i widened my vocab - by having a pocket Collins dictionary handy. i could be wrong but i doubt that's how our kids do it these days.

Oldstock said...


Archer and Sheldon were my staple too. The last Archer book that I read was Paths Of Glory, about the mountaineer George Mallory who may have reached Mt Everest before Hilary. I read somewhere that Archer is now planning to write a super-duper epic that would take up 3 volumes. The guy sure has tons of ideas.

Pat said...

I grew up with Enid Blyton, too - so much so, that her books seem to be my childhood for real ;) When I finally made my first trip to England, last year, everyone joked that I was finally going 'home'! Hahahaha!

As an English teacher, I always told my students to guess the meaning, and not look words up. So, what you were doing would've met with my approval ;)

And you are right about stopping to look things up in a dictionary: you probably won't use the word in a sentence you make yourself; and yes, you would probably forget it soon.

Plebeian is opposite for patrician ;) Heee! Heee! Heee!

And won't you agree that a good way to remember 'narcissistic' is to think of it as an adjective for politicians?!

doc said...


he has many good ones but the 2 i would strongly recommend is Kane & Abel and As the Crow Flies.

the 1st of that series Only Time Will Tell has been out for some months. you can check out his blog at

Oldstock said...

Whoa Pat! You are making me jealous... patricians vs plebeians, heheh..

BTW, narcissistic is too nice a word to be applied to politicians, because the word relates to the appreciation of beauty, just like the narcissus flower. Most politicians to me, are just simply dirty.

Oldstock said...

Doc, thanks for the heads up. I'll try to get a copy of Only Time Will Tell.

Wan Sharif said...

Reading your entry and all the comments from your readers.. I felt
like "malu lah" to tell you my own experience here..
I do have quite a bit to tell... have to gather enough courage to expose what a lousy kampung bum I was.. ;)
May be I will post that as a tribute to your inspiring entry :)

Oldstock said...

Takyah nak malu sangat Ayoh Wang. Kita dah tua-tua ni saja suka nak kenang kembali pengalaman zaman bebudak dulu.

Even budak kampung have interesting stories to tell. I look forward to reading your story soon..

somuffins said...


Lupa nak mintak halal sbb I dah cilok lagu CryMeARiver..

In fact I wrote an entry a bit abt it, untuk kenangan masa lampau..

Oldstock said...

Cik Som,

No prob.... kita pun cilok lagu tu from somewhere. Dah baca entri you itu.... dan kita dah komen juga, tapi pada posting terbaru.