Friday, October 23, 2015

A New Word About Words

It was a normal Friday morning…..or at least I thought.

I was thrilled that it was Friday, despite anticipating at busy workday ahead, but the knowledge that the weekend was right around the corner (despite inevitable laundry and chores) had me all but skipping to Starbucks for my celebratory early-morning-Friday-latte.

As I ordered my drink from the dear, sweet barista-girl who I always chat with, we exchanged pleasantries about the fact that it was Friday and what our plans were for the day. She said she had a test later that day. I knew she was in school for writing…or journalism…or…something – something to do with words. But it was early, you see, and I was in a fog. My ‘wheels’ weren’t working yet, I hadn’t had my coffee yet, but I knew I was correct in remembering what she was in school for – how could I not? We were sisters in the literary world.

The nearby gargantuan coffee machine got its own wheels working, what with all the grinding and churning and steaming that it does to make fancy drinks. But when I asked her what her test was for (puffing out my chest a bit as I wondered if I – the writerly person I am – might be able to help her), the coffee machine chose that moment to execute the grand finale of my latte; a final loud whir and whoosh and burst of steam and the machine was done making my hot latte.

“It’s a test on mor *STEAM/WHOOSH* phines…” was all I heard. I saw her mouth move, and I couldn’t hear exactly what she said, but….WHAT?

“Morphines?” I asked, instantly awake. I didn’t think pharmaceuticals had much to do with the written word (well, maybe for some folks) – or maybe she had switched class and was now going to school to be a doctor, or a pharmacist or….

She patiently repeated ‘morphines,’ but by then the coffee machine was at it again, performing al its’ whirring, whooshing and steaming for someone else’s drink.

“Morphines?” I asked over the coffee/milk-milk-steamer-thing. “Like as in the medicine?” If I furrowed my brow any harder, I was gonna need surgery to unfurrow it – a perfect time for morphine, indeed.

“No,” she started again. If she was counting to ten on my account, she hid it well. “M O R P H E M E,” she spelled out. “It’s the smallest unit of a word.”


I unfurrowed my brow so fast I think it nearly fell off.

She tried to explain a morpheme and I kind of ‘got’ her explanation – but I didn’t. I had her write down the word so I could research it (aka GOOGLE it).

I would later learn that, according to the Miriam Webster dictionary, a morpheme is a word or a part of a word that has a meaning and that contains no smaller part that has a meaning. Wikipedia says a morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in a language – the smallest meaningful unit of a language.

I was intrigued – I didn’t expect to learn about MORPHEMES when I got up that morning. Where she is studying linguistics which is the scientific study of a language, I am a writer and I play with words and jumble them around trying to set them into an order that is entertaining and perhaps meaningful: our interest in the written word and language the same….but different. With departing words of wishes of luck on her test, I had left the coffee shop with my latte in hand intrigued and inspired about what had happened. Where we had had a somewhat (ahem) confusing (on my part) exchange using language, about language, I wondered: do we hear what we want, or assume we think we know what we heard? Words, no matter what size, shape, form or meaning, are powerful yet confusing. They intrigue us enough to study them, dissect them, or play with them. Or, in our case that morning in the shop, share them.

Although I was more confused than ever, I would later realize after spending much too much time doing research (Googling) that I would have to get someone to sit down and explain morphemes to me – over a cup of coffee. I had learned a new word about words, and although I don't claim to know everything about everything, it just goes to show you never know what you’re gonna learn – and when.


  1. Who knew! I certainly didn't (must have missed that particular high school English class). The things we learn, even at a Starbucks!

    1. I know! It was a bit confusing (on my part only - which is, er, um, 'normal'), but man oh man - you sure DO learn something new everyday :)

  2. Something new for a Sunday - I suspect the conversation may be slightly different next time you go for you Latte.

    1. Ha! Yes, I never know what the girls in the coffee shop and I will chat about every time I go in there.... :)