“Daddy, what does ‘certainly’ mean?” my daughter yelled from the back seat on our way home from school the other day.

I love it when my kids ask me what words mean. Provided they’re not swear words, of course, which fortunately haven’t come up yet. When my kids ask me what a word means, it makes me smile at their curiosity, their expanding minds. It also makes me happy because usually I know the answer. I like knowing the answer.

“Absolutely!” I cry in response.

“What’s that mean?’ my daughter replies.


“What’s that mean?”

Hmm. Let me think a moment. “Where did you hear that word? Use it in a sentence,” I tell her.

She says she heard it on PJ Masks (an animated television show featuring kids that turn into superheroes at night). When a character is asked if she’ll fight the bad guy, she replies, “I certainly will!”

That means she sure will, I tell my daughter. If I really know I’m going to do something, then I’m certainly going to do something, I say. OK, she replies. That seems to satisfy her.

I should have known to start with asking her to use the word in a sentence. I’d learned that the hard way a few years ago when my son asked, “Daddy, what’s a symbol?”

A symbol. How to describe a symbol. Prince flashed through my mind; there was a time when he used a symbol for his name. That was unusual and interesting, but it wouldn’t help me explain symbols to my son. Superheroes, I thought. I should relate it to superheroes. “You know that big spotlight with the design that looks like a bat in the sky that they use to call for Batman?” I asked. “That’s a symbol.” Oh, he said. But for some reason he sounded unconvinced.

Or maybe he meant a cymbal. Of course! A cymbal, I explained, is part of a drum set. They’re the flat metal things you hit that make so much noise that your sister covers her ears and complains. Is that what you meant?

Still getting uncertain vibes, I asked a few clarifying questions. Where did you hear that word? I tried not to sound accusatory. As if it were a swear he’d heard on the school bus. Can you use it in a sentence? As if we were on stage in the midst of a spelling bee. Maybe I should ask him for the word’s origin, too.

“Captain America says it,” my son replied. What? “Yeah,” he continued. “Captain America says, ‘Avengers assemble!’ What does that mean, Daddy?”

Ugh! Of course I should have asked him to use it in a sentence first, and of course it all comes back to superheroes. Assemble means to come together, to fight as a team, I told him. He seemed satisfied with my answer. Either that, or he was tired of my multiple, probably confusing, definitions.

I do love it when my kids ask me what words mean. I like it when I have the right answers, when I can share some of my plentiful wisdom. Especially if the answers are easy. I’ve just got to be sure to ask the right questions first, to make sure we’re all on the same page. To make sure we’re definitely, absolutely, certainly on the same page.

BILL ZUCK is considering using a symbol for his name. You can reach him at wcz78@yahoo.com.

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