Friday, December 4, 2009
Before you start thinking I need an emergency sit down with my priest, let me explain. My obsession is words, and no other lover will ever quell my passion for them. I believe it started when I was a wee scholar at Bishop Baraga Central Grade School. After lunch my class gathered on the carpeting to watch The Electric Company. Suddenly, silhouetted faces took over the screen. Their profiles began sensuously shaping syllables that slid out their mouths in hushed tones. Those syllables met in the middle and formed words. It was dark and mysterious. It was film noir for phonics and it changed my life.
In my adolescence I slurped up the slang of old ‘30s and ‘40s detective books and gangster movies. Their language had force and character. If I had my way we’d still be talking like descendants of Raymond Chandler. Imagine for a moment the next time a telemarketer interrupts your evening, you may hang up or you may get a little tetchy, but what if you said this: “Don’t blow my horn again fakeloo artist. Do you think you’re going to get your mitts on my jack? I’m no weak sister and I can smell the bunk from here. I made you the minute I fixed on your jingle, so don’t hand me the flim flam, you grifter. Close your head or I make like a squeaker and drop a dime you.” Isn’t that both satisfying and enjoyable? Better than any ‘do not call list,’ I say.
I grieve too for legit speech that has all but left the vernacular. When was the last time you heard someone use fantastic sturdy little words like slake or acme? When you're out enjoying a good burger why not compliment your waiter with, “Well done, sir! Your establishment has achieved the acme of cheeseburgers. Now, may I slake my thirst with one of your fine soda pops?” Am I weird, or is saying that more fun than a sack of puppies?
The introduction of a new word fills me with delight. Last night my friend Robin used the word zaftig. Zaftig! What a gift! You are a stranger no more beautiful zaftig with your lovely ‘z’ sound and your onomatopoetic bent. I do have to be careful though because my zest for words can sometimes cloud my judgment. Once I agreed to go on a date that I knew was doomed simply because the guy used the words caveat and peckish in the same sentence. On the other hand, words can sometimes serve to broker true affection. I don’t want to say his spectacular faculty with language is what won me over, but when Graham finally declared his undying devotion to me I stopped him mid-sentence and murmured, “You had me at ylem, umbra, rive, and circean.”
Reader, there is another group of words for which I have a fondness. These are the so-called dirty ones. It wasn’t long after The Electric Company breakthrough that I began taking unreasonable risks and exhibiting thrill-seeking behavior. As always, I blame PBS. I had a hunch there were words I shouldn’t say, so of course my mouth ached for their form and sound. One day I said hell and got a stern look from my mother. So far so good. I followed up a few days later with a quiet but quite audible s**t. My mother exploded. “Ali! Don’t ever say that again!”
As if I didn’t know. She explained that s**t was a bad word. Without considering the consequences, I asked, “Is candy a bad word?” I got an impatient, “Of course not!” "Then why do you always give me s**t when I ask for it?” I countered. That did it. I was momhandled up to my room and told to think about what I had done, so I obliged, spending the next hour whispering all the swear words I could think of.
Swearing, cursing, whatever you want to call it has always come easily to me, and I’m not sure why. My parents rarely swore in my presence. My mom occasionally got into a fender bender that inspired my dad to yell “S**t!” usually preceded by a bull or a horse. I figured my dad thought my mom would be better off leaving the car in the garage and riding one of those to the store. My mother’s substitution for profanity is her own unique invention. I’ve often heard her curse using only the first letters of the wicked words, but what she resorts to when something really bad happens...well, maybe I should just show you. My parents have a terribly dangerous wooden stairway in their home. All manner of human and household pet has taken a mean tumble from it. One morning I approached this deathtrap wearing unbuckled high-heeled sandals. After two steps, I fell to my bare knees and proceeded to bounce one step at a time, on my knees, all the way down. I’m sure the pain was agonizing, but I didn’t feel it until later. For the vision of my mother at the bottom of the stairs in her nightgown, arms outstretched, yelling, “God Bless America!” overwhelmed me. I don’t know what neurons have to fire in her brain to catalyze such a response. All I know is that in times of great stress and emergency my mother has always avoided any use of the f-word and become intensely patriotic.
I bandy about the bad language quite casually because I’ve never believed that mere words could be imbued with good or evil. Once while we were hunting large jungle animals, Papa Hemingway said to me, “Madame, all our words from loose using have lost their edge.” OK, I read that in a book, but it did make me think. I hope it’s not true. I’m not concerned with the staying power of the f-word or its like. Their survival is ensured as long as people find them offensive. It’s the simple words, strung together just so, meant to comfort, console, or encourage that I worry about. How sad the world would be if we forgot the power those words can wield. When I'm despairing and someone asks, “Can I help?” I hope I’m always smart enough to say yes. When I hear “God bless you,” I long to accept and believe in that intention. When I'm given an "I love you" I want the warmth that envelops me to inspire reciprocation. And I pray that when my husband turns to me in times of great suffering and says, “Everything is going to be all right” I'm never so jaded that I can't respond with a happy, hearty, affirming, “F*** yeah it will!!!!" Sorry, I guess I'll go to my room now and think about what I've done....