The Problem with Smart Friends

A friend of mine used the word “provenance” at a dinner party last weekend. It’s bugged me ever since.

One of the kids had placed a pink foam crown on my partner’s head and my friend asked whether it was a birthday crown or a princess crown. So far so good. And then she quietly wondered about the “provenance of the crown.” She said it quietly. Fluently.

“Provenance” isn’t part of my active vocabulary, and is barely part of my passive. It’s one of those words I skip over. In fact, when I asked her, in wondering disbelief, if she’d just used the word “provenance,” I said “providence” and was gently corrected.

All of which bugged me. To clarify, my friend didn’t bug me at all: she was using a beautiful word beautifully. But I like to think of myself as having a sophisticated vocabulary and of using our language well. I didn’t like being upstaged by a better vocabulary. But something else is really bugging me.

I’m pretty sure that two babies and four years of nursing has dulled my intellect. Or maybe it was the MBA… In any case, I do think I used to be smarter. What’s bugging me is that I’m starting to think I’ve been using the baby thing as an excuse for being intellectually lazy.

The “provenance” episode was a prod in the ribs that it is past time to train up. But how do you do that 20 years after college?

The most obvious answer has to do with reading good books with good words in them. Reading is one of the great pleasures (my partner would say addictions) of my life, but I tend to be lazy. Right now I’m (re)reading The Stand by Stephen King. Great storytelling, and not an intellectual workout.

Maybe I should read some of the well-reviewed books on my Kindle that I look at guiltily (The Windup Girl, for example, or Midnight’s Children, or Out Stealing Horses) before buying another Lee Child novel.

Maybe I should take an English lit class. Except that I’ll be in coach certification training for the next six months, which is more than enough school (and tuition) for now.

Maybe I should read The New Yorker.

Or maybe I should find new friends who don’t use beautiful words like “provenance” beautifully. Particularly when talking about pink foam crowns.