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Things that are hard to talk about

Some things are hard to talk about.

Like lichen.

I mean, I love it, but how exactly do you say it? Do you ‘like liken’ or ‘itch for litchen’? I was never totally sure of the correct pronunciation and often simply avoided mentioning it for fear of getting it wrong, looking stupid.

This (admittedly rather bizarre) fear of the word lichen began some years back at a poetry workshop, a compulsory element in a general creative writing course I was doing. Poetry was a little (and for that, read ‘totally’) out of my comfort zone and maybe I already felt a certain amount of pressure when we were told to pair up. My partner was older than me, with a gentle confidence and an air of erudition. Despite her friendly smile, I already felt a little in awe as we got down to the tasks we’d been given – creating a list of our favourite words and then reading a short poem together.

I read the first verse of the poem out loud. Coming to the word ‘lichen’ I unthinkingly pronounced it ‘litchen’. And did I imagine the emphasis as she repeated the line back to me very clearly pronouncing it ‘liken’? To make matters worse, this was after I had unwittingly invented a word in my favourites list, like some kind of Roald Dahl style juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the eccentric.

I felt exposed, a little stupid. The thing is, there were gaping holes in my secondary education – only some of which were of my own making – and although I later hauled myself back up through studying something I truly loved, there are moments when the bitter truth shines through the gaps, spotlighting things I would rather hide, peeling off the bandage to reveal a whole phase of my life – secondary school – that I’d far rather blank out.

As a linguist, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit there are words in my own mother tongue I forget how to pronounce (although sometimes it’s actually because I’m a linguist), but deep down, I knew she wasn’t being condescending when she corrected me and I’m aware that, as a language tutor, I do the same. You simply get so used to correcting pronunciation that it becomes a kneejerk reaction.

So yes, there are things it’s hard to talk about. Lichen is one. Another is that strange feeling of missing the mark. That feeling of having holes in your knowledge that might show you up at any moment. Holes big enough for all your confidence to fall down.

That fear of not being good enough and being caught red-handed in all your insufficiency.

And this is what it’s really all about.

When we hold back from saying something or doing something for fear that others might see through our veneer of education or achievement, something is wrong with our world. Something is wrong when we think we will be judged as stupid because there is one thing we didn’t quite learn at a given time.

So, over the years, while I have admired lichen, I have rarely mentioned it. However, the day I took this photo, transfixed by the extraordinary luminosity of the green – all lime and luscious, I decided to read up a little. I wasn’t looking for pronunciation tips, but there they were.

It turns out, both pronunciations are valid! There is possibly even a traditional preference for ‘litchen’ here in the UK, as opposed to the slightly more American ‘liken’ so apparently, I wasn’t wrong after all. It was more of a ‘You say to-mah-to, I say to-may-to’ situation.

Walking with a friend recently, my long-forbidden word reared its head again.

“Oh look at all that gorgeous ‘litchen’” she said.

“You say litchen too? Some people say ‘liken’. I think it can be both,” I added, explaining my conundrum.

Obviously ‘lichen’ is a completely frivolous, inconsequential example and I’m still not totally sure which pronunciation is best but one thing I’m certain of is this:

It doesn’t matter.

Turning Cornish seaside rooftops yellow, or giving walls and groynes crazy bright highlights. I love it however you pronounce it. And I think of all the other things I love but maybe hold back from talking about in case I sound stupid.

So I will talk of ‘liken’ and ‘litchen’ interchangeably and try to stop giving in to that fear of getting things wrong in more significant ways too.

Stop giving in to fears that stifle the simple pleasures of life.



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