My kids and I were goofing around together the other night and I fell into a role I love to play with them, that of “Incompetent Dad” in which I pretend to be completely clueless as they correct me about the names of animals, or the amount that two numbers add up to, or how to spell a word they know. At one point, Beatrice laughed, looked at me lovingly, and said “Daddy you are such an incompoop!!“ I cackled with glee, said I absolutely loved the sound of that word, and asked her what it meant. She told me, proudly, that she had learned it from a friend and that it meant I was silly. Bea, Otis, and I then spent the rest of the evening figuring out the funniest way to call each other “incompoops,” trying the word on, enjoying the sound of it, and loving each other’s company.
There may come a day when I end up correcting Beatrice, letting her know that the actual word is “nincompoop.” At some point in her life she may even enjoy knowing that no one really knows where the word comes from: Perhaps (but probably not) it comes from the Latin non compos mentis, which means “not mentally competent.” Perhaps (but probably not) from the Dutch nicht om poep which back in the day meant “the female relative of a fool.” It seems to more likely be related to the name of Nicodemus from the Gospel of St. John, whose name is still used in the french term “nicodème” to signify a simpleton. It could also very easily just be a made up term like Beatrice’s “incompoop.”
For now, the greatest gift I can give Beatrice is my liking and enjoyment of her words. I can revel in her exploration of the English language, and marvel at the progress she is making at reading, writing, and speaking our incredibly complex and wondrous system of letters, words, and sentences. Peter Elbow has written persuasively about the power of “liking” when it comes to helping students progress in writing. He argues that “It's not improvement that leads to liking, but rather liking that leads to improvement.” If I like Beatrice’s brave (albeit incorrect) use of a new word, and honor her stabs at spelling difficult words, then she will be invested in improving. The “liking” opens up doors for patient conversation and gentle correction as she moves forward. I am convinced that Beatrice will not be saying “incompoop” twenty years from now (although I might still be using it!), just like she is not calling me dada anymore. She will learn, and that learning process will be helped greatly by the fact that people in her life enjoy and appreciate the twists and turns of her journey towards becoming a fluent writer, reader, and speaker. I happen to think that focusing on what we “like” is also pretty powerful approach to life in general, but what do I know. I’m just an “incompoop.”