Two fine articles in Sunday’s (1/16/11) Joplin Globe about Mark Twain and his Huckleberry Finn controversy over the “n” word now have the windmills of my mind in a whirl.
Words. What power they have, and what danger they hold. The pen, it is said, is mightier than the sword. That would be hyperbole for those prone to be prosaic, but for poets, anarchists and politicians, among others, the phrase carries profound insight into human behavior.
For example, I recently crossed (s)words with my submariner/wordsmith-colleague Anson Burlingame at some length, both in this public sphere and with even more vigor in private channels. In these exchanges, which we each now consider unbecomingly immoderate, one word would lead to another.
English, I submit, having a superfluity of synonyms, is probably more prone to misunderstanding than any other language. It invariably depends on context for understanding, a context that is often inadequate, particularly in the written form. The current use of emoticons in today’s blogosphere is understandable and should probably be encouraged. I recently accused Anson of a lack of imagination, but on a very serious
subject where, in fact, imagination would have been inappropriate. Apparently my assurances to that effect were adequate because no grenade, verbal or otherwise, was returned.
So many words, so many nuances, so many opportunities for misunderstanding, and nowhere more than in politics. One man’s liberal is another’s progressive. Is Billy Long a conservative, a reactionist, or just a “good-ole-boy”? Is Rush Limbaugh a, well, never mind. There comes a point where girth of ego and body overwhelm one’s capacity for comparisons.
Anson, in one of our verbal duels coined a new word, “wingnut”. It’s not in my dictionary but its meaning seemed clear to me because of its perjorative context. I thought its use was inappropriate and unsubstantiated, and one thing led to another, including certain impractical and inappropriate anatomical suggestions which are better left to the imagination. But paraphrasing Willie Nelson:
The bitter fruit of anger, growing from your mind conservative.
Oh what a heartache, but I forgive the things you said to me.
For I believe forgiving is the only way I’ll find peace of mind.
Forgiving you was easy but forgetting seems to take the longest time.
Now Anson, please don’t take offense. I’m trying to be humorous here. See the friendly face? 🙂
As for other problems with words, they abound. The other night on NBC Nightly News I heard Brian Williams read a word incorrectly. The item was about the changes in the zodiac upsetting horoscope-believers because a slow progression of astronomical changes had overtaken ancient star patterns. The root cause was the earth’s “precession”, a term familiar to engineers, gyroscope technicians and navigators but not, apparently, to TV journalists. Brian smoothly read it as “progression” at least twice, thus proving that he might not understand everything he says as well as you think. (I have always admired the way the Brits introduce their anchor-persons as those who will now “read the news”. Or at least they used to. We here in the colonies too often conflate volubility into wisdom.)
And finally, there is pronunciation. If you want to offend quickly and easily, just correct an adult’s pronunciation and the defenses go up faster than Rush Limbaugh’s income. I know local TV newscasters who regularly mispronounce nuclear and arctic. Of course, then there were Jimmie Carter and George W. Bush, but space precludes discussing their word-mangling. I think Jimmie, a nuclear engineer himself, pronounced it “new-kyar”.
Regional dialects also confound and certainly make me wonder how we only had one civil war. Take for example one particular Ozarkian oddity of pronunciation, the word “similar”. How on earth do they get sim-you-lar for that? And here in the midwest we talk of cement as “cee’-ment”, whereas in the East the accent is on the LAST syllable.
Of course we are not alone in peculiarities of speech. After many years of being transferred all over the country in my Naval career I ended up in, of all places, Boston, a place almost as foreign in expression as if I had been sent to France. There, a turning-circle or round-a-bout is called a rotary. When I spoke to someone on the phone before reporting there I mentioned a near-by city, Worchester, and pronounced it the way it’s spelled. Confusion reigned until she caught on. Oh, she said, you mean” Woostah”! Later in that tour, in casual conversation someone mentioned “the chablis and brie crowd”. Dumb old me, I knew cheddar but I didn’t know brie from tea.
One of the things I really like about computers, and e-readers for that matter, is the ready access to a dictionary. I’m a real wingnut on the subject.