Readers of my blog sometimes tell me, “Wow, it sure is obvious that you love words.”
Well, they’re right.
I love words, and I love language. I love finding new words that I don’t know, and old words that I’ve forgotten I ever knew. I love funny expressions, regionalisms, and idioms. I love hearing the foreign-born try to wrangle English, and I love hearing the American-born mangle it.
I love hearing, “I’m gonna try a new tact.” (Well, a little diplomacy never hurts, right?) I love hearing, “I was chomping on the bit.” I love it when someone says, “This sore throat is killin’ me – I gotta pick up some lozengers.” (When he was little, Nick used to call ’em, “lollengers,” which I like even more.) How about, “He asked me out to a movie, but I demured.” (Accompanied by eyelid-fluttering, I presume?)
Then there are the delightful malapropisms you hear, if you listen closely – creative word-stews that people cook up, including a former patient of mine, who said about a co-worker of hers, “He said something that was just so funny – you know, a malapoop.” The French word for diarrhea, perhaps?
The other day, I was at the Chinese restaurant where I often eat lunch. There’s a new waitress there, who’s the very exact, very dogmatic type. When I come in, she approaches me, sweeps her arm out ahead of her and tries to ‘guide’ me to a table.
And every day I tell her, “That’s alright – I’ll seat myself.”
And what happens the next day, and the next, and the next? “Welcome, sir, may I seat you?”
It reminds me of that old Donald Duck cartoon, where he’s in the museum of ‘modern’ things, and the Robot Butler says, “Your hat, sir,” and takes his hat, upon which Donald produces a new hat from his sleeve, and the robot doggedly persists, “Your hat, sir,” and Donald produces yet another hat, and they repeat the whole thing endlessly, faster and faster.
But I digress – one of my personality characteristics, I’m afraid. I’m definitely not the exact, dogmatic type: I would call myself Impressionistic. My friends would call me scattered, tangential, and absent-minded. Oh well, if they want to sacrifice the richness of complexity for the banality of exactitude, that’s their loss. In fact, that reminds me, didn’t Emerson once . . .
Oops, sorry, we were talking about something, weren’t we?
Oh yeah – words.
And we were talking about somewhere, weren’t we?
Oh yeah, the Chinese restaurant.
So I was sitting there at the back table (where ‘they’ would never seat you!), just behind two young kids and their father, the only other customers in the place. The little girl, I’d say maybe three years old, was sitting next to her Dad, both of them facing away from me. And the little boy, facing me from across their table, was maybe five or so.
They were quiet for a long while, as they attended to their plates. I noticed the Dad was definitely looking pretty beat: had he had ‘sole custody’ of the kids for a few days, over the Christmas holiday? I’m pretty sure I heard them telling him, “Mom this,” or “Mom that,” which told me he probably wasn’t with ‘Mom’ anymore. I could definitely relate to the whole being ‘beat’ thing, though: I had been that solo Dad enough times in my life to recognize ‘the look.’
Well, anyway, suddenly the little girl broke the silence, declaiming, clear as a bell, “Apparently, I’m done eating.” Uh oh, the ‘little genius’ type, without a doubt.
The older brother immediately shot her a sulky glare. Two long beats went by until he asked the Dad, “What’s apparently?”
Dad sighed wearily into his noodles, “Oh, like – it seems like.”
Well, I could see the boy working on it, planning his older-brother, one-upsmanship move. Finally, he announced, grandly, “Apparently, there’s a hundred people in this restaurant.”
The little genius immediately shot back, “No, there’s only four – including that man behind us.”
Damn, she was good! But the boy, with an evil grin, riposted, “Well, I said, ‘apparently.'”
Check, and mate! He had her, for now. Six months earlier, she wouldn’t have known the word ‘apparently’ at all, and six months from now, she would have instantly destroyed his position, but for now, he had her.
Oh, and that wasn’t the end of it, either. The boy, in triumph, plowed through his meal quickly, then started to get very, very antsy. The Dad said, “If you can’t sit still at the table, stand over there,” pointing to the aisle between them and “that man behind us,” as the little genius had so aptly dubbed me, without once turning around.
The boy did as he was told, and for a while he stood there, fidgeting up a storm. Finally, this exchange took place:
Boy: I’m boring, cuz I’m done!
Dad: Use your quiet voice!
Boy: Don’t you have any kids’ apps on your phone?
Boy: Then what do you expect me to do, since I’m full?
I couldn’t keep from chortling out loud, at which the little genius turned around to me and said, “That’s funny,” to which I said, “Apparently,” which got us both giggling again.
As I’ve said before, there’s nothing better than a kid who gets your jokes!
Here’s a ‘word’ story on me: At UCLA, when I first realized that I couldn’t see where being an English major was going to get me, and got the idea to become a psychologist, I talked to a young psychology professor of mine about the field. He asked me, “So, what do you want to do in psychology?” I said, “Oh, just see people, I guess – you know, help them?” He nodded, then said, “So you should probably go into clinical psychology.” I said, “Do they help people?” He said, “Yes,” and that was the sum total of all the ‘career guidance’ I ever received from anybody.
Oh, except for one thing. You see, I chewed on that conversation for a while, and it all sounded fine, except for one thing that was bugging me, that only occurred to me afterwards. The next day, I checked the professor’s office hours and came by his office. I waited while he finished up with a couple of other students I recognized from my class. Finally, he waved me in and I sat down. This was the entirety of our conversation:
Me: You remember our conversation from yesterday?
Me: Does that mean I have to work in a clinic?
Prof: (Laughing) No.
So, I got up, left, and just sort of took it from there. I never did work in a clinic, and for most of my career, I got to work in a real nice office, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like people would respect me as much if I called myself a Real Nice Office Psychologist, so I guess I’ll just stick with Clinical.
In junior high, we had this principal who actually had a Doctorate! Yes, he wasn’t just a ‘Mister,’ he was a ‘Doctor’! And once a year, we would have an assembly (Yay: no class! Sorry, that just slipped out), where he would get up in front of all of us and say stuff. You know, just regular principal stuff. You had your ‘warning’ stuff, like about smoking, and skirt length, and talking in the hallways, and being a good citizen, and then you had your ‘rah-rah’ stuff, about how our school was wonderful and amazing – a ground-breaker, a trailblazer and all, and about how you should be proud to be part of it, and sign up for
shit stuff like hall monitor, and bike safety duty, and get good grades, and that if you do enough shit stuff like that, how you might one day win the Madison Award, which was, obviously, this thing you got if you got good grades and did tons of service and were a kiss-ass good citizen and all.
Well, he went on like this for quite a while, like principals seem born to do. I mean, put me up in front of a bunch of junior high kids like that, and I’d probably just say, “School holiday today! Any questions? Dismissed!” And that’s why I’m working in a Real Nice Office, and not running a school. But principals – hell, they all know instinctively how to ladle out that stuff like it’s chicken gumbo.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t listen, really, to anything the Good Doctor was saying. I just waited, patiently, for him to say, “on there.” What do I mean? Well, this would be an example: “Now, I want to make certain you all understand that we will tolerate absolutely NO talking in the hallways . . . on there.”
See what I mean? He was a compulsive “on there”-er. Not every sentence, but a whole bunch of sentences, were completed by the gratuitous addition of an “on there,” and for me, it was important to note each one, because THAT’S what made his speeches interesting. And after awhile, listening to his “on there’s,” well, it kind of made you want to tack a few of ’em on to your own sentences – you know, just to add a little doctorly gravitas to the whole proceedings?
So, after you left those assemblies, for a few days you might find yourself walking down the hallways and saying to yourself, “Wow, look at that short skirt. That’s not even regulation length . . . on there,” or perhaps, “Damn, I hope Westervelt doesn’t give that essay homework again . . . on there.” See what I mean? It becomes a mental habit, a fun and easy way to sort of round out your personality a little, and give your personal musings a little more oomph . . . on there. Oops, sorry about that.
Language and words – they’re always there, always around. It’s a wonderful thing, and a blessing, to be ‘into’ things that are always around, that can supplement real life on a regular basis. For my Dad, it was birds. Think about it: wherever you go, there are birds to look at, to identify, to look forward to. Rare birds, favorite birds, birds that “aren’t supposed to be there,” something to share with other bird-lovers, a reason for outings, trips and even pilgrimages.
Me – I love baseball, and reading, and classic film noir, lots of kinds of music, and World War II, among other things. And I love words, and language, and what we do with them. No, it’s not a pedantic thing with me: though I might rail at a misspelled billboard, I don’t say it betokens the ruination of our culture or anything, and though I do shake my head when yet one more person on TV says, “butt-naked,” instead of “buck-naked,” I don’t build a wailing wall about it. I mostly have fun with it, doing crossword puzzles and noticing and appreciating special, wonderful uses of language as much as I get a kick out of incorrect usage.
When Dylan Thomas describes late Christmas Eve in his childhood bedroom as, “the close and holy darkness,” well, to me that’s scripture, plain and simple. And in the film noir,The Brasher Doubloon, Philip Marlowe, the private detective, and the police lieutenant have the following conversation, after the cops suspect Marlowe is mixed up in a murder:
Lieutenant: You’re smart, Marlowe, but don’t try to be too smart.
Marlowe: Alright, Captain – I’ll try to be just smart enough.
Now, to me, that’s beautiful.
So you see, even though I ended up becoming a Real Nice Office Psychologist, I guess, apparently, I never really got over being an English major . . . on there.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.