Things We Said Today
I slipped yesterday.
A friend asked if I wanted a cookie, and I replied, “You’re darned tootin’”. The slip was not in eating the cookie, a ginger snap, rich with molasses, and liberally sprinkled with sugar crystals, but in allowing one of the phrases from my childhood to emerge unbidden.
I try to do a daily geezer check, reminding myself that locutions once familiar can cause serious confusion in polite company. I vividly recall a horribly dislocating moment when I used the phrase, “socked right in the puss,” in a class of 10th grade students who were appalled at the imagined act and my effrontery in evoking it. Equally apalling, apparently, was my description of wearing thongs on hot sand. I meant flip-flops, they heard thong.
I don’t know exactly when the shift happened, although I could probably screen some vintage television and see when situation comedies stopped speaking my outmoded language. And that is exactly the term to use — “outmoded”. A la mode — to the fashion, fashionable, current, perhaps even “with it” and “hip”. “Hep”?
Ah, there’s the rub. I may not have access to language current enough to get traction in a discussion of dead language. This is not a new phenomenon; I distinctly remember being called out for using the word “cool” in general affirmation of one plan or another. My best guess is that I was about sixteen; I know it took place with regard to learning to drive, and I know the questioning adult was perhaps no more than ten years older than I was.
In defending my use of the word, I discovered that I had no way to include all that I absolutely knew the word meant. I didn’t want to get into the distinction between beatniks and teenagers, and I hated the idea of imitating one of the contemporary teen idols. I had not yet worked out whether to summon my inner James Dean or my inner Bob Dylan, and found myself simultaneously embarrassed and aggrieved. Had I known my truth at that point, I would have said what I was inclined to say in almost every discussion with anyone not in my immediate circle of friends: “You are too square to understand.”
OK, I know that “square” still has some purchase, but barely. It’s a term I have not used for more than fifty years; it had degraded notably as I went off to college. By the time it appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, it had already become a quaint self-referential anachronism, hardly needing the even more antiquated “Daddy-o” to make the point.
I grew up with electricity, the telephone, and a variety of labor-saving appliances, but still occasionally call a refrigerator the ice box, a bathroom the can or the John, and a person who works at Safeway a grocer — You know, a person who provides groceries, in the same way that a pharmacy dispenses sundries, and a laundry uses a mangle.
All of those brain spasms aside, I find listeners, including my own children, puzzled when I use the sorts of euphemisms common as I grew up, language that avoided what we called swearing, what would now be termed restrained expression. I heard my parents say Hell and Damn, but that was about it, and I’ll admit I was shocked when the words landed, usually when we were running late to an appointment, even though were going like sixty. This was an age in which a conversation approaching things sexual, referred to the subject as talking about the birds and the bees. Storks brought babies. My mother expressed anger or frustration by saying Ships, or Sugar! When really agitated, she might let loose with Son of a Sea Cook! My step-father talked about S.O.B.s. I fear one of them might have been agitated enough to spill the F word — Fudge.
I’ll admit that at my worst I let loose with stronger language more frequently than I would like, but I still notice gratuitous swearing in films or literature, now realizing that those around me hardly hear the obscenities ringing. My eldest son takes particular pleasure in presenting me with situations in which I have to acknowledge that I am uncomfortable with very strong language. There is not one quotable line of dialogue in Magic Mike — XXL for example, although the plot is reasonably tame, assuming, of course, that gyrating male entertainers are simply miming pelvic disorders rather than succumbing to orgiastic excess. HBO’s featured stand-up comedians? I’ll use a word that has also fallen out of favor in saying that their material is too blue for me. I’m still stuck somewhere between Mel Brooks and Don Rickles.
I think I’ve always been over-vigilant about words.
My first memory of living away from home in a boarding school in my fifth grade year was a roommate referring to someone as a half-ass. I was shocked. I was amused. I was awkward and uncomfortable, leaving myself open to years of merciless teasing. At the same time, I was impressed with the metaphor/simile.
What a concept! I was unable to get the image out of my mind for years and still find it the most physically pertinent description of a person virtually too far gone to correct.
Whereas it had been marginally ok to use the word crap to describe a generally unpleasant set of tasks or poor argument, ok to use rear, and butt,maybe heinie, I knew that ass was out-of-bounds in the company of adults.
Unfortunately, I spent time with a number of JDs (juvenile delinquents), also known as hoods, who wore DAs (hair slicked back and up to look like a duck’s ass) who tried to act tough and suggested those who questioned our posture were cruisin’ for a bruisin’. They didn’t go for finks or flakes, drips or drags. They were bad, they were boss, and they had it made in the shade. Time spent with JDs did not rub off, despite my best efforts to dress slick with pegged pants and snap jack shoes. I wasn’t part of the “We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do” club either; I was somewhere outside the prevailing cultural orbit, using vocabulary I hoped would allow me to travel relatively unobserved.
So, having spent untold hours in the dark watching movies good and bad, many of which were made in the 30’s and 40’s, my default vocabulary is not simply outmoded, but positively archaic.
So, gangsters pack rods in order to grab some kale, long green, cabbage, lettuce unless they use a Chicago typewriter or Tommy gun to grab some moolah. A con-man is a flimflam man, a grifter who knows how to chisel. Maybe he runs a clip joint where marks get fleeced, a club where dizzy dames are cute as a bug’s ear with a set of gams that won’t stop, but where the house dick stands ready to put the kibosh on a Joe who tries to put his mitts, dukes, meathooks on one of the fillies. A guy can buy a Jane a cup of java if he’s lousy with dough unless some mug has hacked a lunger or dropped a mickey in the joe.
On the other hand, as I look at terms I use with some caution these days, it strikes me that common lingo has become notably less colorful even as it has become more anatomically precise. How can one compare “She’s hot” to “She’s the cat’s meow”, “being uneasy” with “having the heebie-jeebies”?
By the way, proofing this piece will not be easy as the program I run to spot errors has underlined virtually every word I’ve written.