If one’s sole exposure to words was through literature, one might perceive the English language to be a relatively coherent thing. But if one were obliged to interact with for-real humans, say in a bookstore, maybe because one’s ability to procure food & shelter depended upon it, one might find the English language, in practice, to be a thing funny as all hell. Or maybe any language is funny, not that I’d know. I learned enough Hebrew phonetics in my youth to careen my way through a Bar Mitzvah sans any meaningful comprehension beyond a bemused 13-year-old’s misapprehension of Moses wandering through the desert with his rod. With the succor of 5 years of high school & college Spanish, I can read a 2nd grade level Spanish text as ably as your average 1st grade Spanish gamberro. Maybe all languages are funny when funneled through your basic human pie-hole. I do not know.
Take the word “literally”… a favorite of my adolescent facebook friends who are forever “literally dying”, and that earnest young fella who recently told me that it took him “literally 20 years to read Guns, Germs, and Steel” in spite of the fact that neither book nor alleged reader has existed for that long. Which would have been okay if literally meant something completely different, like, say, “figuratively.” And it ain’t just the kids bandying about that word in all the wrong ways. Plenty people my age (youngish) and older (oldish) utilize it in literally every senten… oh.
Aping the speech patterns of our progeny ain’t necessarily a crime, not literally, but maybe it should be, figuratively. Some fifteen years ago I told a classroom of African-American 6th graders, to whom I was allegedly providing education, that they were “trippin’,” and it would have been nice if at least one policeman had rushed into the room and bonked me upside the head with a nightstick, or service revolver, then rushed me out of the room in cuffs, so I might have been spared the agony of watching them kids rolling on the floor and belly-laughing at me for that final hour of a sweaty afternoon. Violent, instantaneous legal consequences might have displaced that vile memory with a less painful, albeit more bloody, one. Criminalizing misuse of language might have left me with a wee bit of dignity is what I’m saying here.
Sometimes we say the wrong thing because our ignorant asses don’t know what a word means. Other times we say the wrong thing by reciting the right words the wrong way. Take my wife, typically a skilled practitioner of the English language, completely Hebrew-illiterate, and renowned profferer of sound advice regarding children’s literature. Last week it was her bright idea to suggest to a mother and her child that they check out a kooky kids’ book called “Mr. Klutz is Nuts.” But what Flo & I heard my wife exclaim to mother & child, as we re-entered the store from a lovely midday stroll, was:
“Let me grab Mr. Klutz’s nuts for you!”
Well Florence and I just turned right around, trying hard not to make eye-contact with either the horrified mother or her intrigued son (or my oddly exuberant wife), and embarked on a second walk. Chain-walking, as my smoker friends call it, to avoid a tense situation.
Well at dinner that night, when I brought up her peculiar offer to mother and child, my wife was shocked, stunned, and appalled by what I had unwillingly witnessed and she had unwittingly perpetrated. She wanted to drive back to the bookstore, with Flo & I in tow, just to prove to us that this Klutz fella, as evidenced by the title of the book which the lady understandably declined to purchase, was merely cuckoo; nuts if you will. I would have none of it. The words that Flo & I heard were better, more compelling, than those that my wife had intended.
“Hey dad,” said one of my boys, fork poised beneath pie hole. “What was the name of that magazine?”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I lied.
“Oh yeah,” said the other boy, slapping his knee with too much enthusiasm. “I remember that one!”
“Remember what one?” asked my nosey wife.
“They remember nothing,” I declared optimistically.
“’Twas back in aught-seven ,” said one of my wife’s kids, “when the world was still young & innocent. We were doing our homework at the bookstore when this nice old lady came in…”
“No she didn’t,” I lied.
“She was looking for a good literary magazine, and da…”
“No she wasn’t.”
“…and dad suggested she try Black Clock…”
“Except,” interceded the other boy, “He didn’t say clock.”
“No he did not. I do recall him deleting an ‘L’ from one of the words in the title. And adding the word ‘big’ in front of the one word in the title that he actually said correctly. ‘Well ma’am, I recommend you try Big Black…”
And the worst part of it was, instead of having a relatively innocuous memory of the event—say a nightstick smashing into my big white mouth— the astounded agapeness of my children’s eyes confronting me, as comprehension of what I’d said suddenly entered my consciousness (and that traumatized old lady suddenlier exited the bookstore), will forever be seared in my mind like a dunce cap tattooed upon a clown’s naked buttocks.