Op/Ed

Clippings: Hey, I was just being colloquial!

I never was good at math, ever. But I liked to read as a kid, and to write. I got that from my mom, who was the wordsmith in the family. When I asked her what a word meant, she just pointed to the dictionary on the music stand in the living room: “C’mon, Ma, just tell me!” I whined.

Wordsmith: what a good word to describe someone who has a way with words, like an artisan, a blacksmith or locksmith or the other smiths — someone who toils with words. It’s a craft; you get better at it the more you do it.

I even enjoyed diagramming sentences in the seventh grade, all these diagonal lines extending from the straight one in the middle. It was like math or geometry for word nerds. I liked having command of the terms that comprised the language’s lexicon: the parts of speech — the nouns and verbs and modifiers and connectors.

Words! Some words are just perfect for what they mean, words like vagabond and gallivant. Plus, they’re fun to say. Other words that are fun and often perfect in context: bagatelle, juggernaut, panoply, eviscerate, filigree, avuncular, haberdasher, superfluous, brouhaha, collaborate, quintessential, scintillating, usurp, titillate (oh, that sounds naughty, doesn’t it?), peccadillo (also naughty!).

So little time, so many words.

I knew what the word rendezvous meant before I knew it was French (and actually two words). I’m sure I spelled it “rondayvoo” at first. It’s sounds sly, conspiratorial: “Let’s rendezvous at 8:00. Don’t tell anyone.”

You want naughty words that roll off the tongue? How about gigolo and concubine for kept men and women. They connote moral turpitude. Turpitude! How apt is that?

The word protocol is fun to say too, though it’s overused at the moment. Tell the truth: how often did you use it before the pandemic? It’s irresistible, more fun to say than rule or guideline. Everything’s a “protocol” now.

Homonyms are fun too, like naughty and knotty. They’re so plentiful that I don’t how anybody learns English as a second language: wine/whine, moan/mown, sea/see, canon/cannon, bare/bear — they’re everywhere.

If I were a poet, I would delight in slipping near-homonyms (near-rhymes?) into my verse: canopy and canapé, parody and parity, feudal/futile, Oedipal and edible (I especially like that one), caché and cachet.

My mother always corrected me when I used good when she thought I should say well: “We played good.” My salvation was when I learned the meaning of “colloquial.” So, when I used a word or expression wrong and was called on it, I told her, “Mom, I was just being ‘colloquial.’”

I taught colloquial to my own kids early. I told them if they got in trouble in elementary school for using a naughty word, they should tell the principal, “just being colloquial.” They could also say, “I was using the vernacular.”

That’s a great word, vernacular! Also fun to say, like colloquial.

I’m a “geezer” now. I described myself this way the other day and wondered where geezer came from. Turns out, it’s a 19th century word which comes from guiser. A guiser was an actor in costume in a play or masquerade (as in a guise, a disguise).

Now it just means an old guy, like me. I like the way it sounds: “I’m a geezer.” Cool homonyms too: guise/guys, guiser/geyser.

I enjoy the way colorful expressions enliven the language. Often, we don’t even pay attention to them: that’s such a can of worms, it’s a slippery slope, take a hike, he was ill at ease, happy as a pig in … well, mud.

I decided that I would keep track of the expressions that I used in conversation on just one day. At the end of the day (itself a favorite expression of many), I had said at the drop of a hat, barking up the wrong tree, like a bat out of hell, as happy as a clam, a shrinking violet.

Like me, perhaps you have little idea as to their literal meaning, their etymology. It’s time, then, to hit the dictionary. My mother certainly never imagined that the dictionary would be on a phone in our pocket!

I mourn the death of the adverb. What do people have against the two little letters l and y. We are encouraged now to “shop local” and “drive slow.” The Governor tells us “we are getting the vaccine out as quick as we can.”

I am urged not to take things personal. Well, I’m taking personal offense at this adverb abuse!

See that exclamation point. I like them. In moderation. They indicate excitement, emotion. One is sufficient! The exclamation point, and the question mark too, are breeding like bunnies!!!!!!!!! What the heck is going on?????????

It’s punctuation inflation! You are allowed . . . ONE.

The inclination to make nouns into verbs bugs me (bugs me! I’m scratching already). People don’t write in their journal, they journal and they practice journaling. Organizations covenant. You can gift somebody, and they might regift what you give them. People often reference now instead refer to. Recently, I heard efforting, as in “we’re efforting to change that.” Ugh.

I’m going to lose on that one. I’ve already lost on “impact.” Even my daughter, who is a wordsmith like her grandmother and namesake, uses impact as a verb: “how will that impact the economy?” Not me, I use “affect,” and not with an “e.”

It goes the other way too: send me an invitation, please, not an invite (and don’t ask me to please RSVP).

I know, I sound like a curmudgeon (16th century gaelic; muigean — “disagreeable person”; cur — dog!). Why would anyone invite me anywhere? My friend, the English professor, reminds me gently that language is fluid, always changing, evolving; that which is wrong becomes right over time, through usage.

Lest you find me supercilious (good word!), let me tell you about my recent comeuppance (also good) when I met with the editor of this high-quality news publication. I pointed out with pique (homonym: pique/peak/peek) that occasionally I found problems in his newspaper with the object of the preposition (you know, as with “between you and I”).

His rejoinder was to point out that one of the sports columnists (and not the outdoors one) has trouble with appositives, using commas when none are needed, and he misuses that and which and further and farther — and recently wrote “caché” when he meant “cachet.” Touché, mon ami.

Back to my mom: She died four years ago at 99, pretty sharp the whole time. She listened to her granddaughter (and namesake) on the radio and watched the news on TV. What really bugged her were guests who came on a program and expressed their appreciation with: “Thanks for having me.”

She would invariably complain, “The only person you can legitimately say, ‘thank you for having me,’ is your mother!”

It annoys me now too, on her behalf, when I hear it. I do wish I had more often said to her, “thanks for having me, Mom.”

—————

Editor’s note: Where this editor grew up in the Midwest people pronounced “naughty” and “knotty” as two distinct words that didn’t sound alike so they weren’t homonyms, but the author was raised in Maine where they must have spoken with an accent that made the two words sound the same.

Second Editor’s note: Congratulate Karl Lindholm when you see him; a series of his Clippings columns earned second place in the recent New England Newspaper and Press Association Better Newspaper Competition — that’s second place for all of New England!! Or, as Karl says, first among the losers.

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