Commatose

Commas are a bit like farts:  They usually stink and they can be quite funny.

If you are on excellent terms with the comma, I salute you.  If you’re not, however, you are in good company.  And if you have any doubt that commas stink, just ask the opinion of a third grader, or for that matter, of a college student struggling through the ordeal that is freshman English.

Should you wince at the mention of the comma, finding nothing funny about it at all, I direct you to the panda that is the subject of the famous “eats shoots and leaves” joke (and also to Lynne Truss’s grammar book by that title, comma added after the first word).  And if that’s not enough to free your inner belly laugh, I refer you to some of my experiences as a proofreader with a major pharmaceutical company, some 35 years ago.

Now, you may argue that proofreading is about the deadliest dull occupation in existence.  Like anything else in life, however, it is what you make of it.

One of my fellow proofreaders was seriously mismatched for the position (she had previously been a printing press operator for the company and, well, we had a labor union).  English was not her first language, she was very poor at spelling and she had no interest whatever in grammar or punctuation.  I am not proud to say that I joined the other proofreader in making some rather cruel jokes at this poor woman’s expense, particularly after one of her written instructions to the typesetters indicated a missing coma.  You have to work for a drug company to truly appreciate that one.

After that incident, we proceeded to make horrible comma jokes at every opportunity.  I’m talking about everything from “Can you comma over here for a minute?” to bad karaoke attempts at singing James Taylor’s “Handy Man” (click on the link and listen to the end of the song if you don’t get the reference).  From there, we moved on to mangling other forms of punctuation in the name of medical proofreading humor (correcting an improperly punctuated sentence might involve a “semicolonoscopy”).

I thought about those long ago days while I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket this morning.  I noticed a sign regarding the use of plastic bags.  Let’s just say that this topic has become something of a big deal in our fair county since a local environmental ordinance, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, requires supermarkets and box stores to charge ten cents per plastic bag.  Many of my neighbors drive across the county line to Roseville to do our shopping, where no such ban is in place.  But even the “avoiders” may be out of luck come November, when an initiative to extend the measure statewide will be on the ballot.

The sign in question read:  “Say so long to single use plastic bags.  Bring Your Own Sac.”

Whoa, Nellie!  Sac?  Seriously?

My Webster’s defines the word as “a pouch within a plant or animal, often containing a fluid.”  I also checked one of the online dictionaries, which added the note “can be confused with sack.”

No kidding.  Just when I was processing images of shoppers bringing cow stomachs and goat bladders to the supermarket, I realized that that the issue was not one of spelling, but one of punctuation.  To understand this, it helps to be aware that, locally, “Sacramento” is often shortened to “Sac.”  Apparently, the statement in question was intended as an instruction to county residents.  “Bring your own, Sac,” has quite a different meaning than the same sentence without a comma.

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed grammar or punctuation in this space, so let me know if you’d like me to do so again (or conversely, feel free to lob rotten tomatoes at me).  In other words, please leave me a comma.

 

Haircut in My Language

Someone, please tell me:  Why is it so difficult to find a place for a man to get a decent haircut?

It’s not like I need a haircut all the time.  I show up for this quarterly, like a corporate financial report.  My father tells me that he is old enough to remember a time when men sat in the barber’s chair on the corner for a touch-up every week.  I have a feeling that the experience was intended to be more social than depilatory.

I’ve read about remnants of the haircut as social experience lingering on in barber shops frequented by African-Americans in urban communities.  And while I support public opportunities for socialization, perhaps it is my suburban sensibilities that cause me to prefer an arm’s length business transaction.

Notice to hair cutters:  I’m not here to make a new friend; I don’t expect you to be my bartender.  I don’t want to swap life stories, nor do I wish to discuss the presidential election, my marriage or even the weather.  If you do ask me a question, I will endeavor to respond politely and I expect the same courtesy in return.  Please can the rudeness and do not inquire about my weekend plans or what I’m having for dinner.  In return, it will be my pleasure to include a generous tip to express appreciation for your time and expertise.

Some would claim that my attitude paints me as inhuman.  At some level, I would have to agree.  I’m still hoping that modern technology comes up with a reliable robo-barber.  Tim Cook and Satya Nadella, are you listening?

These days, it seems that my alternatives are the national unisex haircutting chains or the local three-chair shop that we pass regularly along the highway.  Yesterday, I tried the latter and was quite disappointed.  I suppose that, from an “it’s all relative” viewpoint, I have no cause to complain.  At least I didn’t emerge looking like a Marine on Parris Island, as I did after my previous haircut in Fresno.  My chief complaint is that the hair cutter, who was not at all gentle, nicked me twice.  I attempted to point this out by yelling “Ow!” but I don’t think she got the message.

I suppose I should be grateful that this hair cutter did not attempt to engage me in conversation.  Perhaps this was due to the language barrier.  As she seemed to understand the general type of hair cut I was requesting, I was not aware of this issue until she was done and I asked how much I owed.  Although she repeated herself twice, I could not understand what she was saying.  She finally resorted to the international language of money by holding up the corresponding number of fingers.  Now, I am all in favor of multiculturalism, but I do believe that we require a common language in which we can all communicate.  Perhaps this is easy for me to say, because English has become something of an international language and happens to be the language which I speak.  Perhaps I need to “check my privilege.”  Should the common language we choose turn out to be Spanish, Mandarin or something else, I will begin studying.  In the meantime, however, I expect those with whom I am spending my money to speak enough English so that we can conduct business without resorting to sign language.

Until then, does anyone know a decent place for a guy to get a haircut?

 

Just Google It: An Essay on Self-Reliance

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, among my favorite words in the French language is la débrouillardisme and its adjective form, débroubillard(e).  While I do not believe that there is any English word that exactly captures the nuances of the term, the closest translation that I’ve encountered is “resourcefulness.”  The word also has a certain patina of what, back in my college days, was termed “gettin’ over on the man” and what (even earlier, as a kid) adults called “pulling a fast one.”  The implication is one of knowing how to get things done, particularly in terms of which back channels must be traversed and whose palms must be greased.  But the French word also contains an element of the concept of “cleverness,” somewhere between knowing how to spin straw into gold and knowing how to trick people into doing what you want.  It’s no wonder that “il/elle est très débrouillard(e)” is among the highest of compliments that a French person can bestow.

I also think of the term as bearing elements of “self-reliance,” as in “he can take care of himself.”  That presents a fine line between the admirable trait (in terms of the Protestant work ethic, anyway) of not needing to depend on anyone else and the (arguably) more questionable trait of “being a sharpie” who obtains advantages for him/herself at the expense of others.

I thought about this concept today because of Google, and because of the U.S. presidential debates that I’ve been watching on TV recently.

Painted with the broadest of brush strokes, I’ve heard it expressed that the Republicans are the party of laissez-faire economics and rugged individualism.  The Horatio Alger “rags to riches” myth (and its closely associated phrase “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”), with its implication that “any kid can grow up to be president, just look at old Abe Lincoln who was born in a log cabin,” is alive and well in America.  The GOP has a reputation as being “the party of business” that rewards the rich with tax breaks that aid them in retaining their wealth.  The party also has a reputation of favoring a reduced role of government, with the underlying philosophy that most of us have deep wells of fortitude upon which one can draw to reach the nirvana that is self-reliance.  Don’t mess around with the economy and things will find their own level as people make decisions based on self-interest.  Coddling Americans with government largesse encourages sloth and leads to every type of weakness, from the personal to the national.

The Democratic Party philosophy appears to embody a decidedly different world view that includes awareness of society’s troubles, from poverty to mental illness to drugs (what I like to term “the three Hs”:  homelessness, Haldol and heroin).  My fellow Democrats like to be proactive rather than reactive.  Rather than closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, we believe in spending money on things like education, social justice and prevention rather than prisons, hospitals and cemeteries.  We believe that those who “can” have a duty to society to give their all.  But we also know that there will always be those who “cannot” and must be supported rather than left to be trampled on by the herd, to suffer and to die in desperation.  “There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded.”  Deut. 15:11  We may admire self-reliance, but it is wrong to disrespect those who, for whatever reason, lack that ability.  It takes all kinds to make a well-rounded society, and everyone has something to contribute.  We all agree on the need to care for the children, but too many of us fail to see that there are those among us who will always be children and must be taken care of regardless of their chronological age.

The stresses of modern American life put the lie to the ideal of self-reliance and expose the Horatio Alger myth for what it is.  I think of Donald Trump, whom I believe is rightly admired for his many successes, but who may not have been able to achieve them had he not been preceded by his millionaire real estate developer father, Fred.  While Trump may see himself as a modern-day Lincoln (I suspect that The Donald is a legend in his own mind), he was definitely not born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky.  Nor was he raised in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was.

I find a supreme irony in the fact that both Trump and Sanders are native New Yorkers, the former from Queens and the latter from Brooklyn.  One was born with a silver spoon in his mouth while the other was born to impoverished immigrants who sought a better life in America.  I suppose it’s no wonder that Sanders seems to have an appreciation for the suffering and hope of those who risk everything to escape death in places like Syria, while Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and keep Muslims out of the country.  I think it’s clear that we have two different world views going on here, each propounded by a man who achieved success through his own vision of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” la débrouillardisme.

This is where I have to mention Google.  It seems that hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say “Why don’t you Google it?”  After hearing this phrase roll off the tongue of coworkers, my wife and my teenage niece, the profoundness of its ubiquity struck me when I heard it from my octogenarian father not too long ago.  The essence is that if you don’t know, it’s no big deal.  You can just Google it.

Over the centuries, the United States has progressed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and, finally, to an information economy.  Despite the importance of information, however, no one much cares what we have stored up in our brains anymore.  Why commit anything to memory when you can just Google it?

Among the arguments in favor of search engines is that they are capable of storing exponentially more information than any person could ever hope to know.  I imagine that today’s grade school students must find it insufferable to have to memorize anything (from multiplication facts to state capitals to spelling words) when you can just Google it.

Is this what has come of self-reliance?  Have we truly moved on from Nike’s age of “just do it” to the age of “just Google it?”  One could argue that we no longer rely on the self, but instead rely on computer databases (and hope to God that they are accurate).  Speaking of accuracy, I suppose there is no comparison.  The human mind is subject to the vagaries of recollection and the ravages of time, but zeroes and ones (like diamonds) are forever.

There are those who argue that the knowledge economy transcends the memorization of yesterday.  Computers spew and vomit out data nonstop; the value-added individual is he or she who can interpret what it all means.  How important is it really that a presidential candidate at a debate botches the name of a world leader, a quotation or a statistic?  We all know that CNN, Fox News and the New York Times will be fact checking every statement.  So there really isn’t any need for a dog to bark at the lies and misstatements of the candidates, as so colorfully recounted by Hillary Clinton recently.  We have the news media to do the barking for us.  And think of all the money we save on vet bills!

In his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that we are obligated to decide things for ourselves rather than rely on the views and opinions of others.  He praises nonconformity, at least in the sense it shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  After all, who’s to say that we’re not right and everyone else is wrong?

I suppose Emerson’s ideals could be said to have influenced the self-reliant types who head off into the Alaskan wilderness to live the life of a resourceful hermit.  And yet, the French ideal of la débrouillardisme is not about separating ourselves from our fellow man, but learning to succeed in spite of him.  It’s all about being Dickens’ Artful Dodger, knowing how to turn the tricks of the trade to your advantage, how to smooth talk others into giving you what you want, how to execute what Trump refers to as “the art of the deal.”

While it’s fine to admire the clever among us, and to refine our methods of dreaming and scheming, it would be well to remember that we are not dealing with a level playing field here.  Many of us are disadvantaged right out of the gate, including African-Americans and recent immigrants, who face every variety of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, and including those with mental and physical disabilities, and including those who were raised in abject poverty that weighs one down with a gravitational force that precludes pulling one’s self up by even the strongest of bootstraps.

While those of us who “can” pursue our self-reliant ways, we must never forget to proffer the assistance needed by those who “might” with the aid of additional resources, and we must never forget to provide for those who “cannot” under any circumstances.

So I say to all the presidential candidates of both parties:  Know this for certain, that the day will come when you will require an answer that neither Google nor Siri can provide.  For as King David taught us centuries ago, in time even the mighty shall fall.  And it is then that those of former greatness shall gain personal knowledge of what it is like for those of us who live without help and without hope.

 

Doin’ the Circûmflex Dance

One of my favorite cartoons of all time (which I discovered several years ago in Jonathan Fenby’s excellent France on the Brink) depicts a harried teacher before a French grammar class composed of teenage hoodlums.  In an apparent effort to help her students relate to the rather dry lesson, she writes the following conjugation on the blackboard:

nous brûlons une voiture
vous brûlez une voiture
ils brûlent une voiture
ells brûlent une voiture

“We burn a car, you burn a car, they burn a car . . .”

Best of all is the wry caption:  “And don’t forget the circumflex!”

I remembered this today when I read about the new rules and words developed by the Académie Française, the nearly 400 year old body that protects the integrity of the French language and determines how words are spelled in the French dictionary.  Among those changes, to take effect in schoolbooks next academic year, is the removal of the circumflex (the little hat- or roof-shaped accent) from words in which it has heretofore appeared over a U or I.  So brûler in the teacher’s lesson above will become bruler and entraîner (“to practice”) will become entrainer.

Quite a ruckus has been raised on social media by French speakers who are appalled at the mangling of their language and their perceived betrayal by the organization that exists to protect it.  The hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe (“I am circumflex”) has been trending on Twitter among those expressing their indignation.  This, of course, is a play on “Je Suis Charlie,” the defiant phrase carried on signs and worn on clothing following the murders at the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last year.

As you can see, the French get rather touchy about their language.  Granted, the circumflex doesn’t totally change the pronunciation of a word the way the acute accent or cedilla does (changing a short E to a long E and changing a C from the K sound to the S sound, respectively).  Some believe the accent is pretty much useless, a relic of Old French adopted to indicate locations where the letter S had been omitted (for example, bête, the word for “beast” gained its circumflex when it lost its S in the transition to modern French).  And the circumflex will not be completely disappearing; it will still appear where it always has on the vowels A, E and O, as well as on words in which its absence would change the meaning (such as sur, “on top of,” versus sûr, meaning “sure”).  But it is still a matter of pride for the French.

As if the disappearing circumflex weren’t bad enough, the Académie Française also saw fit to change the correct spelling of a few words — oh, about 2,400 in all.  For example, oignon, the word for “onion,” becomes ognon.  And it’s not only the circumflex that will be seen less often.  Fewer hyphens will be around, too.  Compound words like porte-monnaie (change purse) and week-end will lose their hyphens.

I had to laugh when I heard about week-end.  That, of course, is a prime example of “franglais,” the slang Frenchification of English words and phrases that so many of the French detest.  And although there is a perfectly good phrase for “weekend” in French (fin de semaine), the Académie Française has apparently capitulated to the unstoppable waves of popular culture that have been beating against the shores of French linguistics for decades.  Now, the French can not only use the English word “weekend” knowing it is officially sanctioned, but French kids can even spell it just the way it’s spelled in English without getting points marked off their papers.

I have to wonder about grand-mère, the French word for “grandmother.”  Back in the Stone Age, when I was in school, it was spelled grand’mère, with, of all things, an apostrophe.  By the time I arrived in college, the apostrophe had been replaced by a hyphen.  Could it be that the French will now be able to address their grannies without the need of punctuation?

Something tells me the grandmothers of French aren’t going to like this one bit.  But they can look on the bright side.  At least they won’t be losing a circumflex.

 

 

Trump and Bump and the Political Potty (Mouth)

Yesterday, I wrote about media outlets that are too squeamish to make references to bodily functions, including even words like “pee” that have made their ways into everyday conversation.  Newspapers with “family” sensibilities and radio and television stations fearing censure and fines from the FCC are finding it more and more difficult to operate within strictures that defy the realities of the world about which they are reporting.

Once we get beyond the popularity of slang references to urination and defecation, we get into the territory of what were once known as “cuss words,” many of which refer to genitalia or sexual functions.  I should mention that these words referred to those subjects at one time, although today they have largely divested themselves of those meanings, being used primarily for emphasis or to indicate anger or surprise.

I vaguely recall reading that a major American newspaper vowed never to print one of those vulgar words in its pages until such time as the president of the United States used them publicly.  It wasn’t long until that very situation occurred and the paper had to eat humble pie.

The fact is that quite a few U.S. presidents have demonstrated their fondness for profanity.  Harry Truman, LBJ, Clinton, both Bushes and, yes, President Obama, are among them.  Some would argue that use of this type of language constitutes decidedly unpresidential conduct and is inappropriate for anyone supposedly serving as a role model for today’s youth.  Whether the leader of the free world is expected to fulfill that function in the 21st century remains a subject for debate.

I must admit that I was a bit taken aback by an article published over the holiday weekend by Phil Bump, a Washington Post political columnist whom I admire and respect.  The purpose of the piece was to point out that presidential candidate Donald Trump has a potty mouth, as clearly demonstrated by some of his very colorful tweets.  It’s true:  The man loves his expletives.  If nothing else, they certainly attract attention.  The problem, as I learned in writing class many years ago, is that the expletive tends to be all the reader sees.  The shock value of such words tends to completely supersede and blot out any point the writer may have been attempting to make.

I’m not surprised that Trump likes to cuss, but I was terribly disappointed with the subterfuge to which Bump had to resort in order to present Trump’s Bluest Hits of Twitter without violating the arcane and laughably out-of-date rules set forth by his newspaper.  The plan involved asking readers to solve a type of cryptogram in order to figure out the particular vulgarities used by Trump without the paper having to actually print those words.

“For kicks,” writes Bump in explaining his scheme, “we’ve changed the four swear words we looked at into names.  The word beginning with an F is “Frank.”  The one beginning with an S is “Sam.”  The three-letter word starting with A becomes “Alex,” and the longer, seven-letter variant thereof, “Alexander.”

Bump then coyly quotes some of Trump’s rants on Twitter, substituting the proposed words above for the profanity actually used.  WTF?

“Before we continue,” writes Bump, “we will demurely note that The Washington Post tends not to use a lot of cussing on its pages.”  No, really?  I mean, gosh darn, you could have fooled me.  He then goes on to state, seemingly by way of distancing himself from his own folly, that “We are not 10, but if any 10-year-olds read this, their innocent sensibilities will be spared (in case there is some 10-year-old who doesn’t know the f-word).”

I believe that this last sentence, particularly the parenthetical portion, is designed to point out Bump’s awareness of how utterly ridiculous are the rules by which news writers and columnists are bound.  Surely it is no surprise to anyone that a demagogue, a self-styled man of the people such as Trump, would speak using the same type of language that (most of) the rest of us do.

That the news media ignore the facts of the modern world, instead opting to sing “la la la la” while sticking their fingers in their ears, is a demonstration of how out of touch they are with reality.

As for you, Phil Bump, quit playing cryptogram games and insist on telling it like it is.  If the Post won’t print it, tell them to go Frank themselves.

 

Impostor

I am reading a beautifully written essay on the difficulties of relating childhood memories in English when you grew up speaking another language.  Some things just don’t translate.  In fact, one could argue that events experienced in one language can no more be translated into another than apple can be translated into banana.  Barney the Dinosaur notwithstanding, if you grew up speaking, breathing, existing in purple, how is one to render the experience into green?  The phrase “lost in translation” doesn’t tell the half of it.

In the very first paragraph of the essay, I ran across the Spanish word maldito.  Instinctively, I know that this is translated into English as “damned.”  I do not know how I know this.  Somewhere between growing up in New York and twenty years in California, I inhaled it through my pores.

I do not speak Spanish.  This fact hit me hard recently when, sitting at a table full of strangers, I heard a nearby woman speak a few words en español and I responded in kind.  “Do you speak Spanish, or just understand it?” she asked me in English.  Busted!  I am an impostor, and this was her way of telling me that she knew it.

Having some knowledge of Latin roots has helped me “figure out” the meanings of many English words without having to look them up, just as Mrs. Morse promised back in tenth grade.  But recognizing bits of Latin has helped me to understand words in the Romance languages as well, first in my high school and college study of French and later, in my study of Spanish on the streets, in the supermarkets and in the break rooms of my workplaces in central California.

I remember that maldito hails from the same Latin roots as the English word “malediction,” which refers to a curse.  I’ve never heard anyone actually use this word in conversation, but I have a vague recollection of once having come across it in the works of an obscure writer named William Shakespeare.  Reaching back in my memory banks to high school days, the year after I sat in Mrs. Morse’s classroom, I sang Mozart’s Requiem with the John Jay Senior High School chorus and, what do you know, the Latin word maledictis cropped up.  It seems that, in every century, a lot of people were into curses.

Actually, the word maldito sounds to me as if it should mean “misspoken,” as in saying one thing when really meaning another.  Returning to memoir mode, as a kid I believed that this applied to most things said by adults.  To my mind, this made them “damned” liars.

Breaking maldito into its two component parts leaves us with mal (bad, evil, wrong, sick, etc.) and dito (from the Latin dictum, or “speech, spoken, told,” I assume).  As in high school, I largely rely on my memory because I am too lazy to look it up.  So if a malediction is a curse, and mal + dito = bad speech, it makes sense that “damned” is still considered a “curse word” (or “bad speak”) in some circles.  (Or so I think.  I am old enough to have been around when a kid could get in serious trouble for saying “damn.”  Something tells me that “damn,” along with “hell,” may have been laughed out of the curse word pantheon years ago.)

The Spanish language has long been a bit of an enigma for me.  One day a basic knowledge of español is my best friend, while the next I find myself flummoxed and fumbling for the correct Spanish word, much to the amusement of the person with whom I am hoping to communicate.

Back when we lived in Modesto, I loved to pull up to the self-service pumps of a convenience store, walk inside, throw a twenty on the counter and yell ¡Veinte, número uno! over my shoulder as I turned around and walked out, knowing that the correct gas pump would be turned on.  It made me feel like some kind of big shot.

Impostor, that’s me.  But I love the ability to live as a stranger in my own land.

If two women are holding a spirited Spanish conversation in the supermarket aisle, most of what they are saying will likely go right over my head.  As I maneuver my shopping cart around them, however, I will catch that one of them is cussing out her cheatin’ good-for-nothing ex-boyfriend.  As I’ve mentioned before in this space, some things you can understand in any language.

Although I happen to enjoy the mellifluous sound of Spanish, I am well aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm therefor.  It is a hot button issue here in California, where the Mexican border is just down the road a piece.  Many object to the plethora of signs in Spanish and to the way our state and federal governments feel compelled to translate everything into that language.

My father, for example, refers to Spanish as “babble” and will gladly tell you how he feels about people who speak languages other than English in public.  “You like this country?” he starts off.  “You want to stay here?  Learn the [insert invective here] language!”  I’d be a little more specific, but Dad’s colorful language is a notch or two stronger than maldito and I consider this a (more or less) family blog.

It seems obvious to me that just because two people converse in a foreign language doesn’t mean that they don’t speak fluent English as well.  Bilingualism is alive and well in California.  And I know of no law that states that you have a right to understand conversations that don’t involve you just because they happen to be conducted in public.  Our Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech is not limited to the English language.

There are those who point out that when Americans travel to other nations, they are expected to speak the native tongue, not English.  I call this the “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” theory.  I poked around online to see how much validity this theory actually has.  The answer I found is “not much.”  A recent article in the Washington Post points out that English is widely spoken in 101 countries, is one of the official languages in 35 countries and is the most widely studied foreign language.  This final statistic may not seem like such a big deal until you realize that approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide are currently studying English.  Then I saw this map of the second most spoken languages in countries around the world.  I found it interesting that English is the second most spoken language in Japan (good for my nephew when he visits his girlfriend who is currently teaching there) and in Russia (presumably a lucky thing for Edward Snowden).

I am a fan of diversity because homogeneity is, quite frankly, rather boring.  It would be a dull world indeed if we were all exactly the same.  I find it fun to learn about the cultures and traditions of others and delight when they take an interest in my own.  And if I know that you speak another language in addition to English, I will make an effort to learn at least a few words of it.  And I will try to remember that there is no such thing as an exact translation.

So, yes, I may be an impostor, and I may butcher your native tongue unmercifully, but if I catch you saying something funny in Spanish in Wal-Mart, don’t be surprised if I chuckle as I walk by.

Just Words

Daisies

I was annoyed that some kind of message had popped up on my iPhone screen while I was attempting to play my turn in a Words with Friends game.  My annoyance turned to horror when I read the inconvenient little missive, warning me that the sexting app I was about to download contained graphic images.

Where the hell had this come from?

Sitting a few steps away from me, my wife could see that I was perturbed.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.  “You tell me!” I blurted out in response.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a techno-idiot.  As my wife likes to remind me, I break computers.  If there is a way to mess up an electronic device, I will find it.  Those who create foolproof hardware and software never bargained for a fool the likes of me.

In this case, not only was I alarmed by the nature of the warning, but the message box covered most of the little screen and I had no idea how to make it go away without clicking “Download.”  This I most assuredly was not about to do.  I expressed my opinion that this was horrible stuff and that I had no idea how all manner of trash seems to download itself spontaneously onto my phone by some sort of electronic voodoo.

I brought the phone over to my wife, who pressed some buttons, swiped her finger, gave the phone the evil eye, and did a bippity-bop and an abracadabra, quickly returning the phone to its normal state and me to my Words with Friends game.

But she was clearly annoyed with my reaction.  “It’s not horrible, it’s just words!” she insisted.  Her remark returned me to a dilemma I’ve faced for years.

I believe that words are powerful.  I have always loved the aphorism that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”  I don’t think that I could be a writer, even of a lowly blog, if I believed otherwise.

I find that words can inspire, disgust, convince, perplex, soothe, and yes, even change the world.  However, I have also discovered that not everyone agrees.  When I was a kid, my father liked to recite “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me.”  I, of course, knew otherwise, and not just because of some of the choice bits of vocabulary leveled at me by my schoolmates.  I witnessed the visceral reaction of my mother when my parents were arguing and my father used certain Yiddish invective against her.  And, as a bookworm from an early age, I knew how those black letters on the white page could toss me about on an emotional roller coaster.

Three or four jobs ago, I found myself engaged in a running argument on this topic with one of my coworkers.  The usual context of our debate was the appropriateness of profanity.  My position was that the use of certain words raise powerful reactions in the reader that are likely to derail the author’s intended message.  “Oh, they’re just words,” she’d roll her eyes and tell me, implying that I was some kind of prude or maybe just a big baby.

Just words??!!  Does that mean that the Bible is just words?  Does that mean that the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are just words?  I’m sorry, but when I recite the ninety-first Psalm or the Pledge of Allegiance, these are not just words to me.  They mean something.  Granted, what they mean to me may be very different from what they mean to you.  But to utterly dismiss our means of expression, our innermost thoughts and our fondest desires as mere words is a nihilistic proposition that exceeds the bounds of even our most existential of philosophers.

Another pithy saying I learned as a child was “actions speak louder than words.”  I quickly came to understand that this meant that politicians, and almost everyone else as well, were liars and big talkers who would say one thing and do another.  Once again, words were discounted as worthless and devoid of meaning.

And then there was that other glib saying, “silence is golden.”  Apparently, words were so misleading and evil that they were not even worth uttering.  Even the solitude and separation imposed by silence was preferable.

As I grew up, I became amazed by the extent to which people feared words.  Eventually, I came to see that one way of dealing with fear was dismissal.  If you convinced yourself that words were nothing but a load of trash, then you could rob them of their power.

In junior high, when I first studied the Bill of Rights in detail, I learned that freedom of speech is not unlimited.  Because words do indeed carry the power to injure, they have to be reined in to some extent.  The example with which we were provided is that it is unlawful to precipitate a deadly panic by shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

This was something of an “aha” moment for me.  So words do have meaning.  Actions may speak louder than words, but boy howdy, words sure can lead to action.  Action like a mad stampede out of the theater in which scores of people are crushed to death.  Just as surely, effective words can inspire people to perform good works and to engage in amazing acts of kindness and beauty.  Or they can rouse people to fits of anger, to die for a cause, or to commit crazed acts like the murder most of the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo.

It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that words themselves could be beautiful or ugly.  This is not because of the shapes of the letters of which they are composed on paper or the contortions of the mouth in which one must engage in order to pronounce them.  True, the very sound of a word may be mellifluous or grating.  But the inherent beauty of words lies in what they represent.  They are symbols that stand for real things, ideas, emotions.  Say “daisy” and I will likely picture the wildflowers that popped up unbidden on the lawn of my childhood home or the yellow lovelies that now sit in a vase on our kitchen table, courtesy of our generous niece.  Say “war” and I will conjure up images of blood and guts and deafening explosions and tanks and planes and smoke and fire and mortally wounded soldiers writhing in pain.

So no, it’s not “just words” when someone uses profanity and I feel an involuntary jerk in my gut.  And it’s not “just words” when a message pops up on my screen warning me that I am about to download porno.  Horror and disgust are valid reactions to words because words do have meaning, do have import, do have power.

What I have learned is that there are some who I will never be able to convince.  To them, all of my arguments on the subject are undoubtedly “just words.”