Word Watch – August 2009

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Recently I had the pleasure of explaining an old expression to my young friend Liam Vavasour. We were discussing electoral predictions, and I mentioned that 40% of the electorate will always vote Democratic, no matter what, because these people are yaller dog Democrats. Liam wasn’t familiar with the phrase, so I was the lucky person who got to tell him what it means: yaller dog (or, more properly, dawg) Democrats would even vote for a yellow (yaller) dog, so long as the animal ran on the Democratic ticket.

Liam was duly appreciative. He knew he would be able to use that expression, and teach it to his descendants. Possessing a phrase like that, and being able to share it, is one of life’s great, unalloyed pleasures. Picture an old, toothless, moth-eaten, mangy, scruffy, dirty, nasty, yellow dog. Now picture it running for office, and 40% of the populace revering it as a statesman. Isn’t that a wonderful image? It’s too bad that a similarly pungent expression hasn’t been invented about people who insist on voting Republican, no matter what. There is one expression – related, but on the other side of the fence – that isn’t bad: RINO (“Republican in name only”). It suggests that these folk have all the intelligence and wit of rhinoceroses, or even rhinoceri. But it doesn’t get right down in the dirt like yaller dawg.

Some expressions should never be allowed to die. Start with some words about death. Isabel Paterson cherished the African-American saying, “The only thing I gotta do is die.” She took it as metaphysically accurate; she also took it as a banner of freedom. She saw its relationship to one of her favorite book titles, the name of a collection of essays and aphorisms by Frank Moore Colby: “Imaginary Obligations.” Get a pad and pencil and make a list of your own imaginary obligations. After you do that, you’ll find yourself starting to shed them. Then you’ll have much more time for your friends.

Now, every pair of friends – real friends – treasures certain phrases that are shorthand terms for their shared understanding of life. Paul Beroza and I have a ton of them. One originated in the ancient movie musical “Forty-Second Street,” where a young actress’s bad behavior receives the following review from an onlooker: “In a star, it’s temperament, but in a chorus girl, it’s just bad taste.” You can imagine how often Paul and I have occasion to use that phrase in commenting on the performances of contemporary Republican and Democratic politicians.

Another expression for which we find many uses is she’s probably been murdered. There’s a scene in “Citizen Kane” in which the protagonist, a newspaper publisher, is trying to make a scandalous story out of the rumored disappearance of one Mrs. Silverstone, an otherwise unknown resident of Brooklyn. “Now,” he says hopefully, “she’s probably been murdered.” He expresses irritation when reminded that there’s no evidence that any murder has taken place. When Paul and I encounter a media scare campaign, we know how to respond. Global warming? The death of the¬†middle class? Swine flu? “Well,” one of us says to the other, “she’s probably been murdered.”

It’s the truth, and I don’t mind saying it: many Americans, including me, would find it virtually impossible to think if it wasn’t for the expressions they’ve acquired from movies. I mean, can you really get through a day without recurring to “The Wizard of Oz”? Even the witch standing there screaming “Fly! Fly!” to her winged monkeys – can you really picture Richard Nixon without thinking of that? When you’re scheming with your pals at work to do something that will really upset your nonpals at work, don’t you always think, “But it has to be done delicately, delicately“? And as for the Lollipop Guild, what political party or advocacy group doesn’t remind you of that?

What we want from language isn’t just a reproduction of life. We want more life -life with intensity, life in abundance. We want life as it is and as it’s emphasized, criticized, satirized in interesting words, life as it’s made gaudy and mysterious, threatening and comical by every intense expression we can bring to it. When someone says, “The only thing I gotta do is die,” she’s laughing at death. When I hear the old song “East is east, and west is west – and the wrong one I have chose” (from “The Paleface” [1947]), I recognize Kipling’s lines, “East is east, and west is west / And never the twain shall meet,” which are themselves a concise critique of life. But the song makes them more dramatic, more critical. And it makes them funny. It’s bad to make a bad choice in life, but the illiterate descent to chose makes all the wrong choices in this world seem consolingly laughable. It’s not logical, but it happens. I can hardly give east-west directions to someone who stops me in the street, without thinking, “And the wrong one I have chose.” And laughing at it. The same phrase recurs when I’m ruing any wrong directions I have given my own life. Comedy is transcendence.

But speaking of transcendence, what about all those pungent expressions that come to us from religious traditions? Once basic to our language, most of them are now unknown even to Christians. (I know about this; I often teach literary courses on the Bible, and half of my students are evangelical Christians. They don’t regard their Chemistry texts as incomprehensible, but they do have that opinion of the King James Bible.) Nevertheless, how can we do without the quick and the dead? Enshrined in the old language version of the Book of Common Prayer, in its translation of the 4th-century Nicene Creed, the phrase means simply “the living and the dead.” But the Old English “quick” acquired more than a literal significance. Picture the dead. They are still. Now picture the living. They are quick with life and movement. Who would want to forfeit that expression?

And who would want to forfeit expressions that enshrine the inchoate economic understandings of our linguistic ancestors? One of particular value is the game isn’t worth the candle, meaning that the profits you anticipate from whatever game you’re playing won’t be worth the price of the candle that sheds light on the game. It’s a phrase that Henry Watson Fowler, author of the formidable “Modern English Usage,” uses for verbal techniques that may be worth a little something but aren’t worth … the powder to blow them up with. That’s another way of putting it.

The other great expression of this kind is that’s what makes horse races. I’ve commented on this expression in these pages before – and I’m still trying to keep it going. Its proper use is a conciliatory riposte when somebody disagrees with you, but it expresses two important truths: (1) opinions can be expected to differ, (2) differences of opinion are valuable, because without them, there would be no contests, about horses or anything else, and life just wouldn’t be very entertaining.

I recently mentioned the expression to a friend, complaining about the difficulty that most people have in understanding it. “But the phrase is perfectly clear,” she said, “if you’ve ever been to a horse race.” Then she laughed at all those people who’ve never taken the trouble to do that. It’s an unfortunate fact: the obsolescence of a phrase often indicates the obsolescence of an experience. I’m not concerned about the shrinking prestige of Equus, but I don’t want experience to be limited to the kind of thing that goes on inside the ordinary shopping mall or condo complex. No, more than that: I’m unhappy about the obsolescence of interest in gaining new kinds of experience – new to modern people, anyway.

My students at the University of California have no trouble rattling off the nine-syllable Greco-Latin words they learn in Bio class, but they’re stumped by agora, Absalom, Alcibiades, and the other fascinating syllables of ancient civilization. Even when these students are Christians, thee and thou intimidate and depress them. How will they ever find the beauty of whither thou goest, I will go? My grandmothers, though by no means intellectual, and not much closer to the ancient world than my students are, suffered from no such disabilities. Their literary – and perhaps their emotional – experience was incomparably richer.

Or consider a much less intellectual experience. Consider farming. The families of the vast majority of people in this world left the farm three or four generations ago. Their descendants have no conception of how the soup gets into the can, or the hamburger into the supermercado. This may account for the decline of such useful expressions as that dawg won’t hunt, I haven’t heard anything like that since the old cow died, and even quiet as a hole in the ground.

It certainly accounts for the popular mistranslation of a tough row to hoe as a tough road to hoe. People don’t know what a row is, and they aren’t interested in finding out. They’d rather just change the word. It never occurs to them that it would be ridiculous to go out and start hoeing a road. Maybe they don’t know what a hoe is, either, unless they listen to hip-hop, where they discover quite a different usage. Commenting on this sort of ignorance, my friend who goes to horse races predicted that he’s just a broken record will soon be misunderstood as meaning something about shattering records in the Olympics.

Yet obsolescence doesn’t just come from ignorance. Part of it comes from fear. No one in our polite, politically correct modern society wants to describe the notes emitted by a bad opera singer – or, a hundred times worse, a bad “Christian contemporary” songster – as a sound I ain’t heard since the old cow died. If anybody did, he would be denounced for gross incivility, if not impiety to animals – although no one will criticize you if you use the drably polite, drably ignorant, language of the modern age. By the way, when was the last time you heard someone actually denounced as ignorant? Today, our fellow Citizens may be insensitive, selfish, unprofessional– but ignorant? That word never comes to mind.

Suppose you hauled off and used an expression that nobody in your audience could immediately cotton to? Would any of those people think that they might have something to learn or experience? Not likely. Many don’t want to have any particularly vivid experience of language. They cherish a settled irritation, the form of ill will that people used to call a scunner, against words and meanings that don’t conform to the lowest common denominator. In our time, amazing grace, a crucial theological concept for generations of Americans, has come to mean (A) that song you hear at funerals, the one that makes you cry; (B) a quality manifested by top sports stars, as described by daily newspapers.

Ignorance, resentment, boredom; boredom with words, boredom with thoughts … I suppose it was predictable. In this state-guided and state-educated world, children are fed two decades of verbal mush and conclude that words are largely unappetizing. In this world of the wordless, Obama is king.

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