Childlike Enthusiasm

I’ve been listening to a linguist, John McWhorter, on his passion for languages via the podcast Lexicon Valley. One of the things I realized recently is that the reason I’m enjoying it so much isn’t just that I have this deep affection for the English language (although I do). It’s the charm of it. It’s that the linguistics guy has this childlike enthusiasm.

I don’t mean childlike in the sense that it’s simple or it’s stupid. It is simple, but not in that sense that it’s shallow. He has that sense of wonder. That inexplicable thing that we want to recapture in science fiction. I think I understand it a little bit better now.

What I’m picking up is that he has this deep affection, and excitement, and yes, enthusiasm for his topic.  For these little discoveries that he makes. The example I’m thinking of (from this episode) is that he was talking about the common nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill. There’s a line in it that makes more sense if you understand that in an old English dialect, the rhyme for water… Jack and Jill went up a hill, to fetch a pail of waterand Jill came tumbling after… It makes no sense if you have after as the rhyming word. He points out that it’s only after you realize that the word was pronounced arter in the dialect. So water, and arter, rhyme. At least more than water and after, certainly.

The way he said that, he was just so gleeful about it. It got me thinking about this topic of wonderment. There’s nothing in that discovery that does him any benefit. And too often as an adult we get enthusiastic about things that we think make us money, or will advance us somehow, or will get us that girl. So our enthusiasms have ulterior motives. A childlike enthusiasm is simply that. It is an excitement over some new discovery, some possibility. That  wonderment of discovering something about the world around you, about yourself, without any motivation to be able to use that. You might come back later and  be able to use it. I know there were many times I would be reading, then exploring the world around me as an amateur naturalist, and discover things I could later come back around to, and create a pattern with. But it wasn’t why I was doing that.

That sense of wonder, the drive to explore, the desire to find new things, to make new connections… that’s what we need. That’s what we are missing. That’s what I find so charming and enchanting about some of the old science fiction. The small enthusiasms of grown men on something like the linguistics of how we communicate and a nursery rhyme that had evolved along with my mother tongue in ways we lost track of. It’s the simplicity of the joy in it.

I’ve raised four children. One is still at home, and he still has that clear-eyed enthusiasm. It’s not about grasshoppers and frogs any more, now it’s ‘I got the server working! I’m going to set up a minecraft world!’ And ‘Mama, read my code! I made a game. Will you play it?’ Which yes, yes I will play your little etch-a-sketch on the computer while you reach over my hands to touch my keyboard and show me what keys to use. We grow guarded, most of us, as we grow older and have been burned by disdain for our childlike enthusiasms. I can’t tell you how many times I’d talk plants (or parasites, or plagues) and see the other person’s eyes literally glaze over. It made me stop talking about those topics, and try to stick to things I thought would be more interesting to someone else.

Maybe that’s not the way it ought to be. Maybe that naked sense of wonderment is what we need to put in the story. Going back to the cores of ‘what if…?’

That’s why I tend to post science articles here, or over on my own blog, from time to time. Science progresses fast enough that it can be hard to stay ahead of it. But there are also so many potential avenues to explore. A child doesn’t hear ‘that’s impossible’ they try it anyway. They wonder, and dream, and we tell them dreams can come true. Then we lose sight of those dreams as we grow older. Let’s rediscover dreaming and wonderment.


  1. Oh yes! Now I’m remembering how I felt, when I saw the first pictures from the Viking lander. I poured over those pictures. *This* is what Mars looks like. It’s an incredible feeling, that sheer joy.

  2. I still remember the excitement of discovering that trees had thousands of individual leaves instead of being the shapeless green blur that was all I saw until my parents finally figured out I needed glasses.

    And just think of all the other “glasses” we’ve been given by science and technology, from microscopes to Hubble. And the “glasses” created by new ways of looking at the world, ones that turn previous assumptions upside down and inside out.

    And the “glasses” metaphor reminds me that we have to catch that sense of wonder before our brains adjust and start telling us, “Nah, nothing new here.” I read about a man who, trying to understand the strange flip in our optic nerves, wore prismatic lenses that turned the image his eyes got upside down. As I recall, he fell over things a lot for a couple of days, then his brain adjusted and started showing him images in the old orientation.

  3. That’s why I like Richard Feynman so much. He always retained that sense of wonder and enchantment at learning new things. His lectures are available online. His memoirs are memorable!

  4. John McWhorter is wonderful! He’s also published several books on language and does some Great Courses on language.

  5. One of my grandfathers was a subscriber to several tool catalogs.

    He had a fairly substantial number of back issues.

    I used to love paging through those, imagining.

    1. Even though I was aware of that kind of pronunciation… and how certain speakers from New England talked about “ideers” instead of “ideas”… and so on, I was still completely floored by running across a post about how weird it was that some people thought “Gryffindor” and “Ravenclaw” didn’t rhyme.

    2. That and — perhaps more directly applicable — the joke about “a house without a flaw!” “Then what do you stand on?”

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