When I was a kid, words were dished out with great relish by those around me, especially the grownups in my life, but I wasn’t allowed to participate in their conversations. Instead, I watched in silence as their words banged around in the air above me. It was a given that children had nothing to say that anyone wanted to hear. Childish prattle, no more, no less.
Some of the words I heard were pedestrian babble, their repetition boring rather than enlightening. Their words seemed base, lowly, crude in a way I couldn’t describe (though I couldn’t have identified them as such at the time), except to say I didn’t hear other people talk this way, so automatically that seemed not a good thing. To avoid that, I would need other words I’d never heard at our table but had run across around dinner tables I found in books. Elitist fare, some might say, but if you don’t graduate from hot dogs to prime rib and Duchess potatoes or eggplant Parmesan with a side of spaghetti marinara at some point, you don’t grow no matter how tall you get.
It doesn’t hurt to try.
In an effort to lift myself up and out, I went in search of words I didn’t hear around my house. But no one was interested in the books I talked about, regardless of the words I used. “Shut up,” I was told. “Who asked you?” they said. “Kids should be seen and not heard.”
So I sat at the table in silence while my parents talked about work or argued about money, or the lack thereof, and my sisters and I played card games while my mother and grandmother engaged in intense discussions about where the next meal was coming from once my father left us. We built walls out of boxes of Cheerios and Rice Krispies around our cereal bowls. That way we wouldn’t have to look at each other, and we’d also be able to stave off moments of ridiculous laughter that might catch us unawares. We wouldn’t be tempted to giggle – or talk. Sometimes we’d tap each other’s arm with a finger or give each other complicit looks. The words themselves entered the conversation only by invitation.
At school you were encouraged to try out new words and exercise their usage. You recognized them in the books you read. They started showing up in your vocabulary. You still had to wait your turn to talk, but that was a question of courtesy, of manners. Etiquette was the mark of the well-bred person who had respect for others. We wanted to share our thoughts and hear what others wanted to share with us.
In contrast, some of today’s newsy talk shows are sheer chaos – a cacophony from beginning to end. If someone tries to ask, or answer, a question, discuss their thoughts on a candidate’s position, no one else will let them. Everybody’s talking at the same time. It’s like watching a catfight the way they go after each other. Everyone wants the first and the last word – and every word between.
And politicians? Liars all. The one who tells the biggest lie and spends the most money spreading lies, distorting facts by skewing statistics, and spewing mud, that one wins. Mud sticks even if it’s not true – they all know that. That’s why they all do it anyway.
But perhaps worse is how the need for words is changing. We live in a world where the art of intelligent conversation and the ability to read a book containing words one may not know is no longer valued. And who has time for these things anyway?
Don’t want to use vowels? Fine. We can make out the words without them. And the more letters you use to text, the more it used to cost. Just devalue some of the letters, keep costs down. And texting is faster.
Can’t take the time to look up the correct spelling? No problem. Spell it the way it sounds – better yet, reduce small phrases to their beginning letters (BFF – best friends forever). They’ll figure it out or ask someone else if they have to. And if Webster’s tosses it into the dictionary – instant validation. Translation: elevation to real word status.
Gore Vidal, a Democrat, and William F. Buckley, a Republican, must be turning over in their graves. Their words were well-chosen, their meanings precise, their nuances sure and steady – and they were comfortable in those clothes. They were also the forerunners of today’s vitriolic politicos.
In our current verbal climate, people who value correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation are denigrated as “elitists” – like that’s a bad thing. Snobs with their noses always in the air. It’s mud-slinging, pure and simple.
I don’t denigrate people for their lack or misuse of convention – but I expect equal treatment. If people are snobs and elitists because they value correctness and use bigger words than others do, you might want to have a heart-to-heart with the mudslinger that lives within them. The last I heard, this was still a free country where democracy reigns.
I still refuse to “caplock,” but I have made some adjustments, occasionally sprinkling my text with, brace yourselves – sentence fragments. They reflect my conversational speech pattern and create emphasis where I want it. If diehard elitists don’t like it, that’s okay – as long as they make room for me at the table.
Now put away that box of cereal and move over.