A few thoughts on language

Disclaimer: this post contains filthy and offensive language. If you are likely to have a problem with that, don’t read it. And for Pete’s sake don’t come bitching to me about it either. If you can handle being a big boy or girl and read about bad language, by all means proceed. It should be fun and enlightening for all of us.

Now, let’s get a few things straight here. I’ve never really considered myself to be blindingly intelligent. I’m reasonably smart and I know a little bit about a lot of things, but that hardly places me on some sort of podium of brilliance, from which I wave genially on high at my minions.

But I do have the misfortune of ending up in jobs where I am among the more intelligent employees. (Which tells you right there how smart I am, if I can’t even work with smart people.) I’ve often found myself in a situation where I am more intelligent than my boss or manager, and it’s extraordinarily maddening. One of the reasons I love my current job is that everyone there is reasonably smart, and some of them are even really smart, so I feel at home among my intellectual equals, so to speak. I’m probably nerdier than anyone else, however, and people shamelessly abuse my reference potential. I get used as a walking dictionary a lot, which I find mildly entertaining.

I’ve noticed that language is often the greatest marker of education and literacy. Most people who are intelligent use a different sort of language than those who aren’t, with the exception of idiot savants, who may sound blazingly stupid but actually have strange repositories of information. I think it’s something about being turned loose on books at an early age, or something about higher education–us smartypants like to use big words.

The other day I was thinking about language usage. We humans are mimickers, and it was brought home to me when one of my colleagues said “it’s wicked cold out there.” He had never said “wicked” in that sense before, and being from Arizona, he didn’t come from a back ground where “wicked” would be used, linguistically, in that way. So he must have picked it up from me, because I often say something is “wicked cold” or “wicked hot” or “wicked expensive” or what have you.

At a previous job, one of my coworkers used to say “it irks my world” when discussing something that annoyed her. I was never certain if she knew what “irks” meant, or had heard it used in a sentence once and liked it, adapting it to her own uses. It was a curious turn of phrase, especially given that the rest of her vocabulary was limited.

Disclaimer: about that bad language. It’s coming up. Stop now if you can’t take the heat kids!

Now don’t get me wrong. I am hardly a paragon of proper English usage. I acquired “like” and “dude” from living in California and my speech is littered with those words, when I’m not saying “fuck” or “fucking” or sometimes “fuckin'”. But my speech is also scattered with words like “defenestrate,” which always brings pause to a conversation.

Perhaps the greatest distinction between my language and that of those around me that I’ve noticed was brought home to me the other day when one coworker said to another: “we wouldn’t want to Jew you out of that.” Earlier that day, she had been reminding me not to “gyp” someone.

Now I don’t know about you, but being, of course a post modern ironic hipster, I may occasionally use naughty words like that, in a post modern way of course, like “I haven’t seen so and so in a coon’s age!” (While tweaking my trucker’s cap, of course.) And only, of course, among my hipster cohorts who understand exactly how hip and postmodern and daring and mocking I am being by using those words. Never in public where ordinary mortals might hear me. For me, there are two sort of tiers of bad words.

There are words like “nigger,” and “kyke”, and “Jap,” which I don’t use. It’s not appropriate. Perhaps if I were a member of one of those ethnic groups, I would feel more comfortable using those words (see “dyke” below), but I’m not, and therefore it is not socially acceptable for me to use them. There are also words like “cunt,” which I use in reference to inanimate objects (“this keyboard is a fucking cunt”) and obnoxious customers (“God that lady is so cunty”) but which I would once again not use directly to someone. And I also feel entitled to use it because I own one. Although I call people “dick” all the time and I don’t have one of those so maybe I need to reconsider that usage. I rarely hear the “really naughty” words used, because I live in a socially sensitive politically correct part of Northern California, and I always sort of reel in shock when I hear one used seriously.

You know those words: they are, in the strict sense, racist: like “coon,” which shouldn’t really be used at all. (“Coon” is complicated because I’ve also heard it used as slang for “raccoon,” a particularly pernicious type of vermin which runs rampant in rural areas.) I would never use “coon” when referring to someone of African-American descent, because it’s offensive, but I do use it in the expression above. There are also words like “dyke*,” which I use figuring that because I am one I’m kind of entitled to. (Although the dykes all hate me because I’m not 100% pure dyke, but that’s their problem.) There are also words like “gyp,” which has a complex usage. I think that when most people talk about “getting gypped,” they are not actually thinking about gypsies. Likewise when someone gets “Jewed out of something,” they may not be making the connection that they are perpetuating a racial slur. But the thing is, they are. It troubles me that in the twenty first century there are people who think it’s acceptable to use those words, and that people have entrenched attitudes about niggers, sand niggers, kykes, gooks, wops, and other ethnic groups. Let’s just go ahead an enforce that social inequality kids, yeah!

Living where I do, I tend to be extremely conscious of my word usage. I’d like to think that I’m also conscious because I don’t think, for example, that gypsies and Jews practice usury and cheat people out of things. I don’t think that making a generalized stereotype on the basis of an ethnic identity is particularly wise. I, for example, dislike being called a “fat American,” although I am both fat and American. This is because of all the negative baggage that goes along with that phrase, all of the cultural implications of calling someone a “fat American,” or saying that you got gypped at dinner last night. American culture and society is an amazing thing. People from all over the world live here and bring their own cultural traditions, heritage, and stereotypes with them. And our language is structured in such a way that insidious word usage like “gyp” often passes with comment. That “coon” is so ingrained in American English that it’s original meaning has been obscured with time. It troubles me to hear words like that coming out of the mouths of otherwise intelligent people, including myself.

English is a fascinating language. It’s constantly in evolution, borrowing words from other languages and coining neologisms and changing, changing every day. It’s amazing to me. It’s amazing to look at the divergence between American and British English. It’s amazing to look at dialects across the United States. But I also feel like American English is suffering a decline. That our vocabulary as a whole is shrinking rather than expanding, and shrinking in a narrow minded, isolationist way. It was very interesting to hear Mr. Bush talking in the State of the Union address about how we were not going to isolate ourselves and that isolationism was not the answer.

Which is funny, because I feel pretty fucking isolated over here. Language is an ideal tool for isolation and an “us” vrs “them” mentality. It lends itself remarkably well to entrenching ideas, doesn’t it? I feel like the United States is cutting itself off culturally, even if we may not be doing so economically, and that we are suffering for it. You can’t defeat stereotypes if you don’t have evidence to the contrary. You can’t learn new words if you can’t explore the world. You can’t learn, in general, and grow if you are limited to your own small minded nation. If you never travel to France, how are you supposed to know what a tarte tatin is? Or choucroute? How are you supposed to know about the delights of blood sausage if you can’t go to Portugal, the taste of Retsina if you have never seen Greece? How are you supposed to know that all Asians don’t look alike if you haven’t tramped around Thailand and Cambodia? The delights of sherbet if you never go to Turkey? The fact that there is an ancient Christian sect in Egpyt, the Copts, if you are afraid of the Muslims who also live there? I suspect that our isolation is partly responsible for the decline of our language, because the current administration is encouraging an “America! Fuck yeah!” mentality that doesn’t leave room for the rest of the world. West is Best! The entrenched racial stereotypes in our language allow us to dismiss cultures which are thousands of years old with a one syllable epithet. That’s a crying shame, kids.

We could all use some vocabulary expansion. It’s time to use those awesome and amazing archaic words, get them back into circulation, and raise the general tone of our English usage. Let’s banish the Jewing and “get bamboozled” and “bilked,” “cozened” or “swindled.” Let’s be victims of “flimflam” and “scams,” get “fleeced,” “misled,” or “chiseled.” Wouldn’t you rather be “diddled” than “gypped”? “Chicanery” may have taken place, you may have been “taken in” by a “scam,” but at least there were no “coons” in sight.

*Does anyone know the origins of “dyke” as slang for lesbian? A dyke is a barrier blocking a passage (I suppose for het men, lesbians are barriers to their own passages), a raised causeway, an embankment, a levee, a mass of igneous rock, and a fixture in the Dutch landscape. So what do lesbians have to do with it?