I love the sounds language creates. Perhaps that love explains why I learned to talk before I could walk. I would sit on my blankie in the middle of the room for hours and be entertained by my parents’ and grandparents’ reactions to my utterances.
From an early age I learned to listen to words the way many introverts do, to remain quiet and absorb all the sounds, all the expressions, all the subtle nuances of spoken English. Thanks to my father who used to create stories for us, and the author of “Dr. Dan, The Bandage Man,” my ears discovered the magic of stringing sentences together to form a story.
Language is never still. It is a pulsing, living, changing entity that adjusts itself to fit new environments. Art, music, fashion, technology, everything in human culture demands new vocabulary. Every job and profession has its’ own ever-changing lexicon which grows and pricks your ears until your brain accommodates and lets your mouth form the new expressions.
The only linguistic practice I find objectionable is hearing a person use the latest work-related lingo to signal his/her self-perceived superiority over those who are in the dark regarding the new vocabulary. We’ve all encountered those people and those situations.
At some point during my classroom career, I noticed the curriculum specialists whose offices were in the Big House, aka the Phila. School District building, began sending memos addressed to “The WORLD Language Teachers.” Huh? What happened to the title, “FOREIGN Language Teachers?”
Then, while reading articles in pedagogical journals, I began seeing references to the “TARGET Language.” To this day, I’ve neither seen nor heard that expression without visualizing William Tell raising his bow, taking aim, and pulling back the arrow as it trembled in anticipation of its launch. When I combined the vision of the speeding arrow with the image of my most challenging student, the one who vociferously resisted my best efforts to introduce him or her to the joys of speaking a foreign (okay WORLD) language, the newly imposed term, “target,” became absolutely therapeutic.
New words fly into our sphere from all sorts of sources. American English is filled with expressions we’ve appropriated from other cultures, (i.e. hors-d’oeuvres, kaput, film noir, espresso, went missing.) I’m especially fond of British-speak because it can be either quite restrained,(Mind the gap,) or extremely literal. About ten years ago, while/whilst driving through a village in Cambridgeshire, Vivian and I passed a sign posted near a hospital. KILL THE NOISE, it read. We were gobsmacked.
I’m convinced many slang expressions spring from the mouths of students in grades five through eight.
Viv, a retired high school counselor, once accepted a two year assignment in a middle school. Every other day she brought home some new combination of words she’d heard from her students. Clearly her students were months ahead of my high-schoolers in pioneering new expressions. By the end of those two years, Viv was convinced I was suffering from a profound loss of hearing, because so often I’d interrupt her anecdotes with, “What? What did you say? What’s a case-quarter? What’s a hooptie?”
Now, dear readers, we’re assaulted daily by new words that come hurtling from the White House. Actually there are only a few new words, perhaps due to the election-thief-in-chief’s limited vocabulary. It’s more a situation of his bombastic pronunciations combined with his constant repetition of certain expressions that guarantee we’ll never hear certain words and phrases again without wincing.
Here are some examples:
bigly – We know he’s slurring together “big league,” but let’s face it, bigly fits
him…except for his hands.
China – Pronounced CH-EYE-na. This actually hurts my ears and brain.
Crooked – Insert anyone’s name. How about Flynn?
Believe me – Nyet! Don’t do it! Ever!
Double down – To insist the new domestic and foreign policies, are good, right, and
effective, especially if the policies are whacky. Also, the habit of
repeating an ill-conceived policy invented by someone who never admits
Fake news – “Right now an armada is sailing toward North Korea,” said the President.
Armada – Lord Charles Francis and Sir Francis Drake destroyed Spain’s in 1588. Why
resurrect this naval term now?
Alt Right – Two words I’m looking at right now on my keyboard. Okay, the second one
is an arrow.
Oligarchs – The folks in Russia whose names we’ll begin hearing as the Putin-gate
One last thought…
Writers use language to help define our characters. If we’ve done a good job delineating characters’ differences via the expressions and speaking styles they use, our readers can make a connection with them more easily.
I don’t recall Dr. Dan, the Bandage Man’s voice, but I do remember those of Nancy Drew, Scout, Sula, Precious Jones, and many others. I look forward to listening to many more.
Renee Bess is the author of five novels. Her current project involves co-curating, along with Lee Lynch, stories, poems, and non-fiction pieces for their anthology, OUR HAPPY HOURS – LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BAR. Please visit Renee’s website: http://www.reneebess.com.