Monday, November 06, 2006

Remembering and recalling

Yesterday during children's time at church, our minister explained El Día de Los Muertos ("Day of the Dead", a Mexican holiday in which families honor the deceased) by describing various traditions associated with the celebration: telling stories, visiting graves, and preparing and enjoying special food. She then asked the children, "How do you remember family members who have died?" The responses varied slightly, but were all of the form, "Well, I remember that my grandfather used to play games with me" or other recollections of activities or particular events.

It occurred to me then that the minister had used the word "remember" in a way that's unfamiliar to most young children. She wasn't asking, "What do you remember about them?" but rather, "How do you keep them in your mind?" It's a connotation that's used most frequently (perhaps exclusively) in the context of death and grave misfortune, and the children---blessedly inexperienced in these matters---didn't grasp the meaning.

A similar word, "recall", also has alternative meanings that can cause confusion. The most common use of this word is calling back to memory, as when one "recalls" a date or a person's name. But there is another related but different meaning, which is to remind one of someone or something. I read an example of this in a recent article profiling German violinist Julia Fischer: "...who has a winsome look that recalls Hilary Hahn..." This description thoroughly confused a friend of mine, who thought that Hilary Hahn (another violinist) had somehow been interviewed for the article and had been the one to describe Fischer's appearance. Rather, the author was describing the physical resemblance between the two women, which is indeed quite strong.

I like the use of these words in this manner; they strike me as being poetic and more beautiful than a clearer phrasing might be. I generally find English to be among the most lacking in subtlety out of all the languages I know, but this is a nice little exception.


Doug said...

Of course another meaning of "recall" - to summon back - could get a little creepy when speaking of los muertos.

Language Lover said...

Indeed! :) But I rarely hear "recall" used as a synonym for "remember" in the case of a person; it seems to refer most frequently to a single fact or image related to that person, such as his name or face.