Palabras Con Amigos

no es exit

I know the word “exit” is good in Spanish.  I have the proof:  Here it is on a Spanish sign in a restaurant!  Why won’t the Spanish version of Words With Friends accept it?

I’ve been playing Words With Friends on my phone for a couple of years now.  I usually have about a dozen games in progress at any given time.  Yes, I sneak in turns at work.  Yes, I check my games when I wake up in the middle of the night.  Yes, I play in the car on the way to work in the morning.

Alright, so I’m addicted.  Don’t judge.

Anyone know of a good 12-step group in northern California?

I play in very competitive rated Scrabble tournaments all over the west coast.  On some level, WWF (not the wrestlers) seems like a logical extension.  And yet, many of us Scrabbleheads won’t go near it.  Admittedly, it’s not for purists.  For what I assume must be copyright reasons, the values of many of the WWF tiles are different than those in Scrabble.  Plus, WWF accepts quite a few words that are not legal in Scrabble.  Words like FI and ZEN, for example.  And the “dirty words,” all perfectly acceptable in Scrabble, are no-gos in family-friendly WWF.  Well, except for shit.  I wonder how that one made it through?

Allow me to tell you about my current opponents.  In no particular order, they are:

  • A coworker from three jobs ago
  • A retired lady who used to work for me several years ago
  • One of my wife’s friends
  • A stranger named BigJo who has a Rottweiler avatar
  • Another stranger named 6Griffins
  • Someone named Daphne with whom I play in French
  • A woman named Mely from Argentina with whom I play in Spanish

So I play in three languages.  What’s it to ya?  You already knew I’m a strange one.

At least I speak French, unlike Nigel Richards, who won the Francophone Scrabble Championship in Belgium this year without understanding a word of français.  How is that possible?  He said he did it by memorizing the French Scrabble dictionary.  Go figure.

I didn’t say I speak French well.  But I can get by after having spent my teen years studying French in junior high and high school.  I even visited Paris once and found that I had no problem communicating at all.

Spanish, however, is another story entirely.  Not only do I not speak español, but I haven’t even imitated Nigel by memorizing the Spanish Scrabble dictionary.  Sure, I can order lunch in a Mexican restaurant (the poor employees try so hard not to laugh), I can ask where’s the bathroom and I once told a stranger soy perdido when I needed directions in Laredo, Texas.  I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the labels on cans in the grocery store, at least as far as distinguishing between proteína, grassa and carbohídrato.  I know some of the words to “La Bamba.”

This should give you a pretty good idea of just how very bad I am at my Spanish language WWF games.  One of my first problems was figuring out what to do with that maldito W.  That nasty little critter is worth 10 points in the Spanish game.  That’s because there aren’t any words in the language that use that letter.  Why should there be?  There is no “W” sound in Spanish.

Gradually, I discovered that the W can be used in Spanish to spell some international words that are pretty much the same in every language.  There is won (a monetary unit of Korea, or what does not happen to me at the end of any game played in Spanish) and there is watt (as in a unit of electricity, a thoroughfare here in Sacramento, or watt the hell am I doing playing in a language I don’t know?).  That’s about the sum total of my Spanish W knowledge.  All of my other attempts have bombed out.  I tried web (apparently, the word is la red), I tried war (it’s la guerra), I tried west (nope, it’s oueste).

Actually, that about sums up my strategy for playing Words With Friends in Spanish.  There are no “challenges” like there are in tournament Scrabble, so I can just try one combination of letters after another until I get lucky.  Throw it at the wall and see if it sticks, as they used to say back in the day.  If at first you don’t succeed, try again, try again, try again, grit your teeth, curse, hold yourself back from throwing the phone across the room because it cost $750 and you can’t afford to replace it.

Amazingly, I recently played my first bingo (play using all seven tiles in the rack) in Spanish WWF.  The word was melones.  Actually, I first tried an anagram, lemones, but then I remembered that the Spanish word for “lemon” is actually citrón.  No matter, I got my bonus points!

Of course, I finally got busted.  Mely, good sport as she is, tried to start a conversation with me over Zynga’s chat feature.  In Spanish, of course.  I was able to fake a few sentences before I had to sheepishly admit that no hablo español muy bien, soy gringo.

What really surprises me is that she still keeps playing with me, two Spanish games at a time.  I figured she’d stop at the end of our first few games, but nope, she keeps rematching me.  I guess I had it coming.  Serves me right for trying to be a big shot.

I’d better turn on the SAP function on the TV or start watching Univision or listen closely to the lyrics of all those unintelligible songs, replete with choruses of ¡ay, ay ay! that they pipe into Chevy’s Fresh Mex.

The ultimate irony is that I recently won my first game with Mel en español.

Su idioma es mi idioma.

Tomorrow on A Map of California:  Can a sane person support both Trump and Sanders?

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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.

On If and Whether

Among the many quirks of the English language is the use of the conjunctions if and whether to make conditional statements.  While this is probably beyond boring to most of you, it holds a certain appeal to my nerdy proclivities.

My trusty dictionary tells me that if hails from the Old High German ibu and the Old and Middle English words yif and gif.  Whether came down through the Old English and Middle English hwether.  I find it interesting that these words have inched towards each other like tentative lovers over the centuries, until today they are often used interchangeably.

If is one of the shortest English words ending in f, sharing that honor with the preposition of and the letter ef itself.  While not onomatopoeic (it doesn’t sound like a thing that it describes), the vowel followed by f gives if a visceral sound akin to the interjection oof!  Humorously, whether is a homophone of the climate-related word weather, happenstance that has been celebrated in numerous corny pop songs over the decades.

I am delighted when I hear someone draw out the vowel sound in if to emphasize the conditional nature of what follows.  This may be accompanied by “open” body language that may include an up and down movement of the hands to indicate that this truly could go either way.  Indeed, the alternate raising and lowering of the hands (palms open, thumbs and forefingers forming the letter F), is how if is expressed in American Sign Language.

I am frequently called upon to prepare flow charts at work, a context in which the word if is important.  Computer scientists sometimes call conditional statements “if/then” statements.  If A, then B.  Should the condition A be found to exist, we know to go straight to B.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can’t eventually reach B by other means.  But the if provides a way of creating a branch in the logic.  At the precise moment at which we reach the fork in the road, the condition is either A or “not A.”  This lets us know which fork to choose.

It’s also rather cool that, over time, we’ve managed to turn the conjunction if into an adjective.  If a situation is particularly tenuous, teetering right on the fence if you will, we say that it is iffy.  It is a way of saying “this is by no means certain” and frequently carries the connotation that the condition in question is far more likely to fail than to succeed.  (As for the poets among us, the word provides a convenient rhyme for jiffy, spiffy or, for our Irish friends, the River Liffey.)

I often compare interesting English words to their equivalents in French, the only other language in which I have any degree of fluency.  The conditional word (“if” or “whether”) in French is si (and often expressed in the contraction s’il).  S’il ne pleut pas aujourd’hui, je marcherai à mon bureau. (If it doesn’t rain today, I’ll walk to the office.)  French also has the idiom si on allait, which has the literal meaning of “if one were to go” but is actually the equivalent of the English suggestion “let’s.”  Back in junior high, I remember repeating the sentence Si on allait faire du ski! (“Let’s go skiing!”)  Ugh, let’s not.  (I remember the following paragraph contained the phrase je me suis cassé la jambe… “I broke my leg.”)

Although I have a very limited command of Spanish (like French, a Romance language — the two have many words and linguistic constructs in common), I am told that si is also used for conditional statements (not to be confused with ¡Sí!… “yes!”).  There is a lot of Spanish spoken here in California, and I’ve heard the phrase es o si (“This one or that one?”), sometimes followed by a rather forceful ¿Qué es? (“Well, which one is it?”).

This Spanish example is a great illustration of how the word if has evolved in English over the years.  If is no longer used exclusively to indicate a possible condition that may or may not exist now/occur in the future; it is often used nearly synonymously with whether or which to indicate a choice between two things.

The linguistic purists among us may still identify a distinct difference between if and whether.  In fact, however, the distinction has become so blurred as to have virtually faded out.  Your friend may say “Let me know if you’re going to the party.”  Arguably, she means “let me know whether you’re going to the party.”  In colloquial English, the two statements have been rendered indistinguishable.

Those purists whom I mentioned may insist that “let me know if you’re going to the party” means that your friend is asking you to call her should you decide to attend the festivities; no action needed should you decide to stay home.  What your friend really means, however, is that she would like you to be forthcoming with information either way, to provide her with a definite answer, “yes, I am going” or “no, I am staying home.”  Probably.  As always, context is king.  “Course of dealing” is paramount; based on your many previous conversations with your friend, you know what she means (although I, stranger to the situation, may not).

Another interesting thing about the word whether is that it is often, implicitly or explicitly, part of the phrase “whether or not.”  One may say “let me know whether or not you’re going” or simply “let me know whether you’re going.”  In the latter case, is the “or not” implied?  Or, in the former case, is the “or not” mere surplusage that adds nothing by its presence?  My next example may make you think twice about this.

The words if and whether are definitely not interchangeable when used to lead off a dependent clause (often at the start of a sentence).  Your mother may say “If you go to the store, please pick up a gallon of milk for me.”  You know she’s not going to say “Whether you go to the store, please pick up a gallon of milk for me.”  That would certainly grate upon the ear and may ultimately cause one to imply the “or not” following “whether,” thereby completely changing the speaker’s intent and the meaning of the sentence.  (Go to the store or don’t, see if I care!  But pick up a gallon of milk for me, whatever you do.)

If you’ve enjoyed this discussion at all, please say so in the comments so that I will know whether to go off on further linguistic tangents in future posts.  Thank you.

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Code Switching

I don’t usually discuss race, on this blog or anywhere else, unless it is preceded by the acronym “NASCAR.”  Today, however, I’ll give it a go, because I’ve been inspired by the new NPR blog, Code Switch.

At first, I didn’t really know what code switching was.  But then I remembered that in the years that I worked for the state relay service for the deaf, I occasionally heard the term “code switching” used to refer to the phenomenon of CODAs (children of deaf adults) and some hard of hearing people who are fluent in both American Sign Language and English suddenly switching between the two during a conversation, perhaps even during the same sentence.  Of course, bilingual people in every culture do this regularly.  It only makes sense:  Cultural context is everything, and it can be pretty close to impossible to explain a concept native to one language in another.

I find multiculturalism thrilling.  I enjoy being able to experience bits of other cultures and to share some of my own.  Those who can speak two or more languages are able to create bridges that our society sorely needs.  Of course, it is possible to use bilingual ability as a tool to keep others out rather than letting others in.  Growing up, I would hear the Yiddish phrase red Yiddish, der goyim ken nisht farschtehen (“Speak Yiddish, the non-Jews won’t understand us”).  Of course, this can backfire, as described in one of the NPR blog’s stories about two women on a subway switching to French to make comments about a fellow passenger (and being shocked when he responded in perfect French).  Among the hazards of code switching:  This is an equal opportunity game.

Code switching doesn’t have to be between different languages; it can also be among dialects of the same language.  The NPR blog points out that many Americans who naturally speak using a Midwestern, Southern or African-American dialect/accent switch to a standard, white bread, “professional” brand of English on their jobs.  Receiving a phone call at work from Mom and slipping right into one’s natural dialect can be rather jarring to coworkers overhearing the conversation.

Although I’ve resided in California for nearly 20 years now and have a relatively flat accent, coworkers often tell me that they can hear the “New Yawk” in my voice.  They should only hear me on the phone with my mother.  As I discussed in a previous post, the Yiddish is flung about with reckless abandon and I sound as if I’ve spent my entire life in Brooklyn.  My wife, a native Californian and daughter of a Pentecostal minister, has learned to understand me when I slip into that mode.  Well, mostly.  I giggle when she starts peppering her own conversation with schlep, schmutz and oy vey.

But the NPR blog points out that code switching isn’t just about language; it’s about multiculturalism as a whole.  It points out that hip-hop music has either become ubiquitous as it merges and assimilates into the larger culture, or has been (mis)appropriated by whites, depending on one’s point of view.  This, of course, has been going on for a very long time.  For years, my father reminded me that the music of the 1950s became less homogeneous when Hoagy Carmichael sang “white” and Elvis sang “black.”

Meanwhile, today’s white kids listen to rap music and enjoy emulating the clothes, hairstyles, lingo and mannerisms of their black peers.  To relate to kids of any race, teachers need to be fluent in African-American jargon and cadence (yet be able to code switch to standard English with the administration).

I should pause here to say that I am a white boy.  Caucasian.  Despite my eastern European ancestry, all the melanin seems to have skipped right over me, leaving me with skin that is pale as a ghost.  Growing up with parents who have graduate degrees, standard, textbook English is all I learned from square one.

My mother gets upset when my sister calls her a racist.  My mother strenuously objects, citing her early years as a teacher in a heavily African-American public school and how she went into “the projects” to tutor kids in jeopardy of failing when none of the other teachers would do so.  It was just a few years after the Newark riots and most white people were afraid to “go up on the hill.”  Despite all of that, today my mother continues to refer to African-Americans as “colored.”

“Nah, I think they were born that way,” is my father’s usual retort, ever the wit.  Never mind that he habitually refers to African-Americans using derogatory terms that I will not repeat on this blog (or anywhere else).

The NPR blog cites the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s decision to refer to African-Americans as “racialized people.”  Well, how dumb is that!  What about the rest of us?  Caucasian, Asian and all the rest are races too, you know.

The U.S. Census, I’ve learned, can’t seem to decide how to refer to the various races, changing the terminology they use nearly every decade.  These days, of course, most of us have backgrounds consisting of multiple races.  I think of my little grandniece, whom I had the pleasure of spending some time with today.  Her father is Filipino (I think) and her mother is part Hispanic, part Caucasian.  I vote for a check box that just says “cute.”

Racial terminology is, of course, anything but cute.  It is loaded with a sad history of discrimination that continues to this day.  And everyone knows that saying the wrong word can get you in trouble, get you fired from work, get you hauled into court, maybe even get you killed.

The NPR blog mentions that the idealists who hoped to forge a post-racial society have not succeeded in their plans, and that it’s not looking good for the foreseeable future.  Despite all the code switching and the melting pot of cultural norms, for unfathomable reasons we still have to pigeonhole each other with terminology that describes the color of our skin and/or the history of our DNA.

I smile broadly when I see how much my grandniece enjoys watching children’s videos in Mandarin Chinese and in Spanish, and when I observe her expressing what she wants in ASL.  I try to remember to say the words for things in English, Spanish and French.  On the day she was born, I whispered a song to her in Hebrew.

I hope she grows up to be an expert code switcher and that she doesn’t find herself hampered by a lot of inaccurate, unfair and discriminatory racial stereotypes.

And I know that I will be happy with whatever languages she ultimately decides to use, as long as her mother tongue remains the language of love.

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CUL8R TXT ME ILY

I’d like to thank my many readers who so kindly left comments on my recent post, “No Text Please, We’re Parents.”  Many of your comments described technophobic experiences with your own parents.  Quite a few of you agreed with my parents’ objection to texting as “impersonal.”

More than one comment mentioned that text-based messaging is rendering conversation a lost art.  When my parents visited for my birthday last weekend, they agreed, pointing out that abbreviations commonly used in text messages are destroying both written and spoken forms of the English language.  By way of example, my mother stated that it grates on her nerves when even radio personalities say “that’s how they do” (omitting the implied “it”).  My father cited the deplorable spelling and grammar that he regularly sees in email and on websites.

I tried to point out that any language changes and grows over time, adding new words and changing acceptable forms of grammar and spelling.  The English of Chaucer’s fourteenth century works and that of Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century works barely resemble each other, much less modern forms of English.

Every generation seems to bemoan the increasing informality of language embraced by their children.  Slang lingo has been a part of teenage culture since the dawn of time.  Kids seek to separate themselves from their parents by embracing vocabulary and grammar alien to their elders.  There was a time when the words “groovy” and “cool” annoyed adults; when I was growing up, it was considered “hip” to tack the word “man” on to the beginning or end of every sentence.  “What’s up, man?”  “Man, that sucks.”  And then there was the ultimate expression of disgust, disappointment, amazement, sympathy or any other emotion of the moment:  “Maaaaaaaaannnn!”

It’s nothing new for parents to believe that their children are destroying the English language.  And yet English soldiers on.

As for abbreviations, I fail to see much difference between today’s CUL8R or ILY and yesteryear’s SWAK and XYZ (“sealed with a kiss” and “check your zipper”).  And it is easy to forget that keystroke-saving abbreviations were rampant on the internet long before text messaging came into vogue.  When I first got online in the mid-1990s, I had to acculturate myself to a whole lexicon of BRBs, IMHOs and FWIWs.  These have found their way into the spoken language; I’ve heard people say “imho” and I myself have been known to say “bee ar bee!”

It is my belief that text messaging, both the kind on cell phones and the kind on the internet, brings people together rather than separating them.  Any form of language that makes it easier for people to communicate is, in my view, a positive development.

And so, I concluded my recent conversation with my parents by telling a story about some text-based communication that I enjoyed on Friday night.  In my goofy way, I took a photo of my dinner using my cell phone, typed the word “Yum!” and sent it to my nephews and nieces using SnapChat.  Every last one of them responded.  These are young people who won’t bother to call me and, likely as not, won’t answer their phones when I call them.  If I want to have much of a relationship with them, I need to be able to send and receive text and photos.  This is one of the main reasons I procured a cell phone in the first place.  So texting or SnapChatting them is my way of saying “I love you” and “I’m thinking of you.”

My niece’s response to my photo was particularly poignant.  “I love how you randomly Snap me!” was her text response.  We all feel loved when we know we’re thought of, now don’t we?

And if that’s “impersonal,” then I’ll take impersonal any day of the week, man.

TTYL!

 

Bluehairs

blue hair

I have always understood “bluehairs” to be a pejorative term for old ladies.  From whence did this disparaging term arise?  Equating white hair with blue doesn’t make much sense to me.  Does this have something to do with poor hair coloring jobs performed by questionable salons upon the white hair of seniors?  And why doesn’t this disparaging term seem to apply to men?

In my quest for elucidation on the subject, I checked a few online dictionaries.  (My real dictionaries are languishing in boxes in my parents’ garage about 3½ hours’ drive down the interstate.  I miss my doorstop pals.)

dictionary

Webster’s online dictionary completely omits the terms “bluehair” and “bluehairs,” leading one to believe that the word is too controversial for that website’s conservative sensibilities.

Citing to Richard Spears’ Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions (4th ed.), dictionary.reference.com provides no hint of word origin, simply defining the term as “an old lady, especially one whose hair is tinted blue.”  I still don’t understand why an old lady, or anyone for that matter, would want to tint his or her hair blue.

The Urban Dictionary offers multiple possible definitions of the term; one that provides a bit more insight is “an old person, but especially a slick, well-dressed retiree that still thinks that they have it going on.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.  Although I continue to remain ignorant regarding the connection between the color blue and the forelocks of our esteemed elders, I am starting to see that the disparaging nature of the term “bluehairs” has more to do with attitude than pigment.

Now, some of Urban Dictionary’s suggested usage examples refer to the term in the context of little old ladies with poor driving habits and stature that has shrunk to the point that only their blue hair is visible above the steering wheel.  That is a rather low blow, don’t you think?  It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out that our fear of aging has reduced us to the point of belittling those whose physical features so clearly exclude them from the American worshipful cult of youth.

Fear of aging is just one piece of the puzzle, however.  I can’t help thinking that perhaps the use of negative-sounding terms to describe senior citizens betrays a bit of “longevity envy.”  With everything from the environment to politics going to hell, we doubt that we ourselves will ever make it to the proud ranks of octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians.

word freak

In his book Word Freak (arguably the best book ever written about the subculture of tournament Scrabble), Stefan Fatsis bemoans the fact that, early in his Scrabble tournament career, he was soundly trounced again and again by the “blue hairs” of the circuit.  Fatsis’ use of the term could be interpreted as a way of feeling better about ourselves by resorting to put-downs of those with greater experience who give the lie to the conventional wisdom that younger is better.

Betty

When in the mood for some mindless entertainment, I have been known to check out Betty White’s TV show “Off Their Rockers” on NBC.  Here’s where we move into what I like to refer to as “longevity levity.”  Ms. White and her crew seek to turn the bluehair stereotype on its head by “punking” members of the younger generation who never see it coming.  Among her stock in trade is poking fun at the common misconception that those in their eighties and beyond have no interest in sex and would probably die of a heart attack should they ever attempt such a strenuous, risky maneuver.  My favorite bit is the one in which she asks a stranger to have sex with her right there in the street so that she can cross this item off her bucket list.  The look on the young man’s face (not to mention the fact that he actually considers it) is priceless.

I don’t know whether Betty White’s antics will succeed in turning around Americans’ attitudes toward the elderly.  Either way, it appears that the term “bluehairs” remains reserved for a special variety of “uncoolness” that we like to attribute to old folks.  But, as we know, all things eventually come full circuit.

blue anime

And sure enough, digging further, I discovered that having blue hair has become cool again!  One of the contributors to Urban Dictionary points out that having characters with blue hair is “a necessity in anime.”  But of course!  I had totally forgotten that blue hair (usually bright blue) is a standard of Japanese animation.  As my Bay Area niece and nephew (who are into such things) would quickly point out, no self-respecting Japanese graphic novel or comic is without at least one character with blue hair, and usually a heroine at that!

So, thanks to our wonderfully rich, constantly evolving English language, it seems that the term “bluehair” is gradually transitioning from an insult to a badge of honor.  And why shouldn’t it?  It’s hard not to notice how blue hair (and green and pink and purple hair) has been gaining a foothold in popularity among the young.  Could it be (Heavens!) that the young are actually imitating the old?

These days, most of us barely take notice when a young woman or man with a blue streak in his or her hair, as well as a pierced lip, tongue and eyebrow, is seen walking down the street or pushing a shopping cart at Wal-Mart.  (The phrase “blue streak” deserves a blog post of its own.  Once used to indicate speed, as in something that goes by in a flash, it is now primarily associated with profanity, as in “swearing a blue streak.”)  I was once placed in the ignominious position of trying to keep a straight face as I conversed with a young woman who had her hair parted in the middle, with one side dyed entirely bright blue while the other side was flecked with streaks of deep red.  I have to stop being such a fuddy-duddy and recognize self-expression when I see it.  But it’s still hard not to laugh.

So when I walked into Starbucks on Thursday (after they once again got my drink order wrong in the drive-through), I barely registered an amused grin when I noticed that a woman sipping a latte at a table in the center of the store had bright blue spiky hair that might have been a bad attempt at imitating a cerulean Statue of Liberty.

As I waited for the barista to remake my decaf soy latte, I slowly registered the fact that the bluehair Lady Liberty wannabe was sharing her small table with a Renaissance maiden and Merlin, the magician.

I had forgotten that it was Halloween.

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013