How many people, apart from the horticulturally gnostic amongst us, know how to pronounce the word peony?
That this question, googled, brings forth pages of posts from Homesteadingtoday.com, to wiki.answers.com to YouTube, leads me to believe that I am not the only one stumbling over my pronunciation of this flower when it appears midway through Today.
It’s not a particularly likeable word, is it? It feels as if an orthographic virus had secreted itself into the dictionary and spitefully begun inserting random dipthongs into the vocabulary most cherished by four year old girls: words like pony, princess, playdate, and iPad.
It is not also somewhat self-referencing, a meta-virus, having a kind of clanging association to the word “poem”? Or as my four year-old, pony-Princess-playdate-iPad loving niece might call it: a pee-yom. Uncle Steve is learning a pee-yom again. Silly uncle Steve! Could not Maggie’s pee-yom at almost any moment become the pee-ye-nee (stress on the first syllable) in that very poem?
It is a word that has, to my ear, some of the abrupt tonal shifts of Mandarin Chinese or Somali which I physically equate with momentary nausea in a plummeting lift when your internal organs do a little juddering skitter in their visceral environment before settling again: the voice doing a little falsetto trill on the pee, only to fall between the cracks on yah, and the to suddenly dart up again on nee.
Discomforting for the lips, tongue and teeth to pack that all in. But such a beautiful flower.
Read Billy Collins’ Today.