Adapted  from 101 Words I Don't Use by Paul Niquette
Copyright 1996 Sophisticated: The Magazine. All rights reserved.

A certain old gentleman, known to us only as Dr. Larkin, came down each evening from his cabin on the hill overlooking the campgrounds and told us stories. A hundred grammar-schoolers sat around the open bonfire, enthralled. He enriched his yarns with the wonders of science and history. I remember several to this day (see overkill).

Dr. Larkin liked words, too. Once he taught us that in ancient times the makers of low-quality pottery would pass off their wares by covering imperfections with wax. To distinguish premium grade pots and urns, the custom was to describe them as being crafted "without wax." The latin sine "without" and cera "wax" joined together to give us the word "sincere," Dr. Larkin said. The moral was plain.

Modern dictionaries trace the word back to two Indo-European roots: (1) sem which by various pathways provided us with "same," "simultaneous," "similar," "simple," "seem"; and (2) ker- "to grow," from which a whole bunch of words grew - "create," "creole," "crescendo," "crescent," "crew," "accrue," "increase," "recruit." Thus, sincere gathers its meaning of "purity" from the notion "of one growth."

Not nearly so satisfying to my mind as old Dr. Larkin's story. But that's not my problem with sincere.

Learning a language from scratch -- how do we do that? The infantile mind ventures through a blizzard of utterances, which float one by one out of the air and cease. Our little cortexes somehow glom onto the stuff before it melts, each flake indistinguishable at first, yet curiously significant. The nascent mind with little effort has the processing power to classify the verbal drifts using software of unthinkable sophistication.

Watch out, though. A child's mind acquires vocabulary more in the act of uttering than in hearing. Mistakes are abundant -- but understandable, are they not?

At an indefinitely early age, I picked up the word "gratitude." It meant something like "transgression committed against a well-meaning benefactor." The only context I knew was an adult's sarcastic comment: "That's gratitude for you."

Similarly, I first acquired "sincere" as a term of compassion, to be applied only in cases of noticeable imperfections. The source of the fallacy is elementary. Parents and other adults - well meaning, we may safely presume -- would say things like...

  • "She has a face that would stop a clock. One thing for sure, though, she's sincere."
  • "Remember good old so-and-so?" one might hear. "He was fat as a pig -- but sincere."
In due course, my childhood perception became formed: Anyone who was clumsy or stupid or otherwise pitiable was invariably sincere.

Summer camp and Dr. Larkin cleared that up. For a half a dozen years, I valued the term and used it properly. Then I became thirteen, the Age of Universal Rottenhood.

It started one day when a teammate missed an easy lay-up. "You're so sincere!" I taunted. The effect was wonderful. I felt a surge of peer approval as we snickered together. Repetition was not long in coming. A classmate was stumped by a teacher's question. I piped up with, "Yeah, but he's sincere." My popularity soared.

Soon enough others took up the practice. "Miss Preston, she's really sincere." Teachers were our favorite targets. "Who is most sincere, Miss Preston or Miss Hooker?" one might ask with exaggerated sincerity. The challenge was to keep a straight face until everybody else laughed.

In our midst, a vogue expression flashed and gleamed. The verbal high jinks applied to a wide range of...

  • subjects: "Geography is sincere."
  • torments: "Midterms are sincere."
  • foods: "Asparagus is sincere."
  • fads: "Duck-tails are sincere."
As what came to be called "teenagers," we turned the mockery...
  • inward: "I'm completely sincere."
  • outward: "Quit being so sincere."
Our parents liked sincere music. A sincere allowance was paid for sincere chores. Our sibling suffered from acute sincerity. Even the weather was sincere.

My memories from summer camp, though, were never sincere. Nor was old Dr. Larkin.


    sincere adj. 1. Not feigned or affected; true. 2. Presenting no false appearance; not hypocritical; honest. 3. Pure, unadulterated. 

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