‘Daddy, what does N-O-X-R spell?’ asks my son, without looking up from his paper. He’s drawing, as usual, a picture of his little sister. She is a large egg with two lines for legs (no arms) and a smile that bisects the entire width of her Humpty Dumpty face like a garotted Parisian aristocrat. His fascination with spelling is charming, if a little back to front. He never asks how words are spelled, preferring instead to list a random sequence of letters and ask what word they make: F-D-T-R or G-S-O-P or P-R-I-B.
Just once in all this time has he hit upon even an acronym, and for this reason he now knows more than any four-year-old really needs to about the Republic of South Africa, the Royal Society of Arts, and the Road Safety Authority. It is impossible to explain to him that this is an inefficient way of increasing his spelling knowledge, but some part of me thinks it keeps him more deeply engaged with letters and their uses than the other way round, so maybe it’s better. The sad fact is I don’t know, and that’s becoming more of a problem.
As a dad, it’s my job to know things, but he so often wants to know things that are unknowable, like when he asked me if he could make his own sun, or if a Wednesday ever became a Sunday. My inability to answer these questions to his satisfaction has simply resulted in him thinking I don’t know anything. Last week, I spluttered when he asked me what ‘take’ means. Try answering that question without using the word ‘take’. The Oxford Dictionary says ‘to lay hold of (something) with one’s hands; reach for and hold’ – I’m not saying that’s inaccurate, just that if you say that to a four-year-old, even they will wonder why you’re not just saying the word ‘take’.
After a few glorious years of encouraging his every malapropism, we’ve spent the past six months slowly correcting his speech because we don’t want him to start school speaking like the adorable broken robot we know and love. Even still, there are some we fight to keep alive. We cling to pasghetti over spaghetti, samgich over sandwich, and his pronunciation of chimley in place of chimney will have to be prised from my cold, dead hands.
There are things he says that we simply don’t understand. He spent last week saying he had gerbils in his mouth, and he should cover his mouth when he coughs because of all these gerbils. As jokes go, I don’t know if it would take him to the Edinburgh fringe, exactly, but we found it charming enough not to correct him. ‘There’s gerbils in the toilet,’ he began announcing after every bathroom trip, over the sound of a hearty flush. At this we showed a little more concern, as it suggested that his fantasy of mouth-residing rodents had begun to take on a more grisly side-plot, incorporating the swallowing, digestion and excretion of said rodents. That was until we realised he had misheard the word ‘germs’ as ‘gerbils’, and had been merely evincing good, clear, hygiene for an entire week, while we laughed but never thought to correct him.
‘Ohhhhh, gerbils!’ I say, finally understanding.
‘Yes, Daddy,’ he answers, dismissively, ‘don’t you know anything?’
Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is out now (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78
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