The Then and Now of Saying

While I was captive in a barber’s chair during the sixties, another customer entered the shop and took his place waiting for a haircut. There was certainly nothing unusual or objectionable about that, being the way ordinary, non-appointment barbers conducted business. But there was one thing about that man that was outrageously annoying. He entered with and maintained a continuous mantra of “up tight and out of sight.” That’s all he said. And he didn’t stop saying it. Worse, it was uttered with both zeal and panache, and delivered with pious inflection like he was really onto something. I think he was simply on something.

Whatever (itself, a suspect word). I could hardly wait to get down right from the barber’s chair and take myself out of sight of the place. But there has never been a way to escape completely from popular verbal expressions; the best course is to avoid using them and hope that others will follow suit.

There is plenty of historical resonance for shunning some words such as the “N” word. Unless you’re a scholar quoting a relevant document, it’s best to steer clear. Yes, white people, don’t go around repeating African-American rap music like you own it. And keep in mind that racist language cuts deeply more than one way. As a child in the fifties, for example, “Jap” was still in common use. The fact that it has now disappeared while we’re still battling the “N” word is a double whammy of singular bigotry.

Part of the problem with specific words and phrases studding modern language is derived from the practice of low culture. It comes at us from all directions, television, advertising, social media and much more. We seem to have adopted vulgarity and crowned it with permission, not only to coexist with elevated communication, but to supplant it.

While slang has its place as expressive speech, we descend into vulgarity when we substitute words and phrases caught on the popular wind in order to be blown about willfully in the common fray. And here’s the thing: it’s not even acknowledged to be vulgar by most who would infer obscenity and resist the label of vulgarity by missing the point of their transgressions. “Screw” has gone up the ladder of acceptability into common usage while “suck” long ago declined in meaning and lately rose in frequency of public occurrence.

Granted, these observations come from an old fogey who resists the word “stink” because it seems sharply offensive, as, indeed, it is intended to be. But the context of offensiveness could be better conveyed. While acknowledging that some modern words are virtually indispensable (who can do without “app”?) there is nothing edifying about hip, dig or even cool, let alone all that and a bag of chips. Okay, I admit that I’m extreme.

And all of this is presented simply because there is something that I want to say that is best stated in vulgar terms from the present and the past: We’re in a hot mess and the cooties are coming faster than we can swat them.

in the public domain by Michael Driver (no rights reserved)

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