Thursday, July 1, 2010

My Romance With Words

When I was in the ninth grade, Mrs. Breckenridge assigned us to write an essay every week. She evaluated our work, consulted with us, handed the papers back, and we would revise. It was where I learned the joy of writing the perfectly honed sentence. Occasionally, since then, I’ve written a few more, and the hope of achieving a well-written sentence keeps me going. When the mind is as blank as the page. I discovered that the real writing comes in the revision. In fact, the word “revision” means to look or see again, and in that process, re-thinking also takes place; careful writing demands careful thinking.

One of the joys of the language is the fun of spoonerisms (saying blushing crow instead of crushing blow), malapropisms (“We get along so well; we have a great repertoire…”) and other “in” jokes language lovers share. I love puns. Once my college roommates mounted on one of the odd ceiling angles in our attic apartment a bigger-than-life-size poster of a famous Russian ballet dancer. They were all waiting to see my reaction to this handsome bigger-than-life-size face with piercing eyes greeting me as I walked in the door. Their conversation stopped as I stood and frowned at it for a moment. With one hand on my hip, and in mock disgust, I said in frozen tones, “Well, you’ve got your Nureyev!”

My mother’s use of mind-numbing clichés is legendary in our family. She had them all in easy reach in every conversation, including a few she made up. She never swore, except to declare, “Son of a biscuit-eater!” When she sometimes stumbled over words, she described it as saying things 'bass-ackwards' or 'getting my tang all tungled up.' Whenever we drove anywhere, she narrated. If there had just been a heavy rain, she’d say, “Boy, they’ve sure had a gullywasher through here.” She knew the names of all the wildflowers, the history of the town we were passing through, told her previous experiences there, and named people she knew who lived there, or had lived there, or planned to live there. Because it was endlessly interesting, and always hilarious, we learned to forgive the clichés.

In our family we have developed a few twists and turns in the language, too, especially regarding names. It makes us unique, binds us together, and is one way our children tolerate their old broken-down English major parents. Our son Jordan has become Fjord, and in the spirit of 'right back atcha,' his sister Jennifer is Fjen. Our non-‘J’ daughter Elin has even become Fjelin. Jordan’s blog name is fjordypants. They have come up with dozens of names for me, probably because Pam is an easier name to play with; therefore, Dad – Roger – is always Dad. They tried once to refer to us affectionately as their pets – Rogerbil and Pamster – but only my nickname stuck. When I’m not Mom, I’ve also become Pamalamadingdong, Pamalino, Pammie-Wammie, or any number of variations on the theme. When Elin married, her intended asked me if I wanted him to call me Mom or Pam. I said either was fine, but Chickie Babe was probably not appropriate. Both our sons-in-law call me The Pamster.

In our conversations, and as we play games together, we fondly recall common experiences, stealing phrases from a movie or video that we can remake to suit our circumstances. With us, Star Wars, Singing in the Rain, The Great Race, The Farley Family Reunion or other favorite movies are part of the language smorgasbord we nibble from. Ultimately there is a right and wrong to grammar, although some of us have been known to reply, when asked a preference, “It don’t make no nevermind to me.” Strangers listening to us might think we’ve developed our own language, or just arrived from another planet.

When I teach creative writing, I always read from The Great Gatsby the description of the parties Gatsby throws. It’s as thrilling a passage of prose as a person can find in American literature. Fitzgerald describes the people and the scene without using the words spoiled, lavish, excessive, or prodigal, and yet the reader comes away thinking those words. That's fine writing. In the spirit of saying it that way, I once wrote an essay on the perils of being short without using the word ‘short.’ It reads pretty well.

I love the sounds of words as well as the meanings. On my blog I have a list of my favorite words, and although it’s incomplete, it still tells a great deal about me and my brain: wonky, imprimatur, absquatulate, crapulence, rendezvous, fracas, ephemeral, ethereal, cinnamon, carbuncle, polliwog, murmur, tarnation, chiaroscuro, credenza, glissando, ubermensch, summer afternoon. And I’m just getting started.

Some language-poor readers of one of my novels, reading a manuscript copy, didn't get the humor of the malapropisms used by one lovable character with a penchant for mangled language. She says, for instance, her daughters’ homes have leatherneck furniture and granola countertops, while her big old Victorian home has become a milestone around her neck. Her cruise ship passed through the Panama Corral, and she describes the food as laminated in honey and soy sauce. She got a nasty garfunkle on her foot and almost missed the dance. We should understand when she says to her niece, "I'm glad you found your glitch in life." I was surprised that some people reading a manuscript copy of the book have written corrections in the margins. I feel sorry for people who can’t or don’t have fun with language.

Words can thrill – “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” – or frighten – “We regret to inform you…” or send chills – “I am the light of the world.” To master the use of words is a great gift, but to appreciate words is an even greater gift. And I salute Mrs. Breckenridge for being the kind of teacher who could put me on the path to a language-rich world.


jww said...

Very nice! I enjoyed the part about the family names, and I think that the language that goes on within a family, the language that DEVELOPS, seems in a way what the Adamic language would be like--pure in its meaning and clear in its understanding. We say "please" to friends and extended family and strangers, but within our own little five, we say "fweezie." It means "please" + "we understand each other." It also pays homage to a certain little one of us who used to say that all the time. I think the family language is really amazing and beautiful. Even when it's silly.

Phil Woods and Steve Smith said...

It sounds like you have great fun! My friend and I like to work with cliches and idioms and look at what life would be like if they were taken literally. For six months, so far, I've been tweeting a pun of my own every day based on these, and they will be in our second book.

There's so much potential for fun in language. As you say, it's a shame that some people don't see it.

Anonymous said...

My humor is mostly puns and I'm finding that there will always be those who just don't get it. It's as if humor had accosted them once in the past, so they don't want to risk it again. They don't know what they're missing. Maybe it's esoteric and that can come off as snobby, but I wouldn't change my type of humor and language use and misuse is part of that.