Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cutting Back on Southern-Fried Speech

Southerners have long been known for colorful expressions and honeyed tones. But just as Southern accents are fading, Southern idiom is gradually disappearing. Check it yourself. When was the last time you heard anyone say "yonder?"

It's inevitable, of course. The South is no longer a backwater, populated by poor folks enduring a hard-scrabble life. Thank goodness. Regional differences across the American landscape have been smoothed and graded by exposure to the voices pouring from radio and television. Again, that's on balance a good thing. It is often noted that before the Civil War, "the United States" was a plural name, as in "these United States." Citizens felt their first loyalty to their states, then the federation. Today's Americans would consider that a strange notion.

While it's all to the good, I can't help mourning the loss of the traditional Southern way of speaking, a bit slower, with all the rough edges polished away. I regret that I would no longer say "We're going to that shop over yonder." Now I "take" a friend to the shop, rather than "carry" her. And I "carry" a shopping bag, rather than "toting" it.

I remember my grandmother, when giving me an errand, urged me not to dawdle by saying, not "hurry up," but "make haste." (It took me a while to realize that was what she was saying, as it sounded like "may case" to me. But I knew it meant "get a move on.") If I tried that command now, doubtless it would produce baffled stares instead of the desired snapping to.

There must be hundreds of Southernisms that gradually faded from my vocabulary, and, at times, I miss them. Likewise, there must have been a proto-Word Crank centuries ago who lamented that young folk no longer say "forsooth" or "prithee" as their elders did.

I understand that language constantly undergoes a destruction-creation cycle. It's all very natural, if bittersweet. But wait, a kernel of Southern speech not only survives, but even has been spread by displaced Southerners to other parts of the country.

Take heart. No matter how homogenized our speech becomes, we will always have "y'all."

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Virtue of Patients

As I write this, I am awaiting a call-back from yet another medical establishment to set an appointment. I have always enjoyed robust health, but now, in late middle age or early seniority—whatever you want to call this awkward age between "Life Begins at 40" and the first Social Security check, it is all catching up to me. I seem to develop a new malady every other month.

After I get the sleep study scheduled, I need to make an appointment with my dermatologist, and the question is, should I make it for my sixth-month check-up in June or go earlier to talk about the latest symptoms? It becomes increasingly obvious that I am heading for that mad whirl of doctors' appointments and lab tests that the elderly organize their lives around.

I don't want to go there. Every appointment equals about half a day lost to productivity. The above-mentioned dermatologist probably wins the prize for keeping patients waiting long after their appointment times. Her waiting room is filled with people in varying states of anxiety and grumpiness. Every 10 or 15 minutes, someone will pop up, walk to the receptionist's desk to ask, querulously, when the doctor will see them, adding that they have to a) catch a plane, b) pick up kids from school or c) run screaming from the place, tearing at their hair in sheer frustration.

The old joke says that all that waiting is why we are called patients. That, as it turns out, is not far from the truth. Both "patients" and "patience" come from the Latin word pati, meaning "to suffer."

Somehow, it makes me feel a bit better to think of all of us in that waiting room as "sufferers." I may even be more patient.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reading in a soft, electronic glow

Now that the century is in its second decade, the Word Crank finally has shuffled into it with the acquisition of one of those high-tech devices that so define our times. Yes, under the Christmas tree was a Nook, Barnes and Noble's answer to Amazon's Kindle. It is the color version, which is especially snazzy.

I am on record as being intrigued, but somewhat dubious about the necessity for these devices. So, now that I have one, what is the verdict? I love it. I still fear its ability to lure me into spending money needlessly (parsimony being one of my virtues/vices), but I'm giving myself self-discipline pep talks. Five and ten dollar book purchases can add up, but I have a $15 a month budget to keep me from going overboard.

Advantages: Portability. The Nook packs easily in luggage or purse. I've already taken mine on a short trip to Mobile. It slips into a pouch in the purse I also got for Christmas and has accompanied me to a couple of doctor appointments.

The Nook also stays open to the page I am reading without requiring a hand, so it's great for solo lunches. Just be cautious of flying food particles. Keep it well clear when eating chicken and dumplings at Cracker Barrel. Trust me.

An unforeseen advantage is the ability to read after lights out. If only I had had this at Camp Kiwanis so many years ago. Now when the spouse grumbles that my bedside lamp is keeping him awake (usually said in a brief hiatus from snoring), I have an option.

An extra benefit is the encouragement to read books outside the usual run of preference. While I have a reading list with more than 100 titles that I would like to check out, the first book I read on my Nook was Dracula. This is not a novel I ever had any interest in reading, but somehow in the process of downloading Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, B & N decided to give me Bram Stoker's classic, as well as Little Women. They just showed up on my Nook.

Sitting with my Nook in a doctor's crowded waiting room, I decided to read the editor's intro to Dracula for the very reason that I was not interested in the book. I was in the midst of another book, a hardback, and didn't really want to start another. I just wanted to while away the time. Well, as I waited and waited, I read the intro, then started the novel and before I knew it, I was hooked.

The only disadvantage I can think of, besides not being compatible with a bubble bath, is that it is not quite so easy to page forward to find the next break, a habit of mine to see if I should keep reading or turn out the light.

Clearly the pros far outweigh the cons in my book (or should I say Nook?). Besides, I shouldn't take many bubble baths anymore. A long bath is so drying to the skin. The Nook even has dermatological benefits!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Measuring words for the memory hole

A new year has begun and with it the language mavens at Lake Superior State University have published their annual list of words and phrases they wish to toss from the American lexicon. Here they are: viral, epic, fail, wow factor, aha moment, back story, BFF, man up, refudiate, mama grizzlies, the American People, I'm just sayin', live life to the fullest, and using Facebook or Google as verbs.

In case you wondered, as I did, Lake Superior State University is in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., a rather charming blue-collar town that I never knew boasted a university. Clearly, an interdisciplinary cadre of fellow cranks came up with a fun and satisfying publicity vehicle for their obscure state college. They deserve kudos, but I think most of us could come up with lists just as newsworthy.

I'll agree on some of the 2011 banished words, but some are okay with me. I am still amused by "man up," and while Facebook should never be a verb, I rarely go a day without googling.

I would submit a few particularly grating words of my own. Before we enter another election campaign, I wish to erase from memory the pompous term "gravitas." This one word makes the writer/speaker look much sillier than the candidate whose claim to seriousness is being questioned.

A warning to candidates and other public figures—when something you have said makes headlines and prompts head-shaking editorials, think before you trot out the old chestnut "They took it out of context." That phrase seems to have been drained of its meaning in recent years. Apparently, many people think it just means "let me off the hook; I'm not a bad guy."

Taking something out of context means just that! The context gives the controversial phrase a different meaning than the excerpt would indicate. A film critic may say "This movie has everything an audience could want, if they came to the theater to catch up on their sleep." The movie theater's ad uses the quote, leaving off the second clause. That's out of context!

Another phrase I'd like to ban is "Our thoughts and prayers are with [insert victims or families of victims of some disaster/crime/enormity]." I recognize the good intent behind this phrase, but I'm tired of it nonetheless. In addition to being banal and cliched, it is meaningless. Our thoughts may be with the victims, but so what? Why in an attempt to comfort those in sorrow are we so eager to pat ourselves on the back? "I'm thinking of you" puts the emphasis on me and my compassion rather than you and your troubles.

As to the second part of the phrase, well, it just doesn't make sense. Our prayers are with you? How can prayers be "with" someone? It would make more sense to say "Our prayers are for you" or, far better, "We are praying for you." Ah, but that requires action and some measure of commitment. It's a little too serious for the quickly tossed-off pro forma condolence.

Well, I suppose that's enough to offend a few of you, my BFFs. Man up! I'm just sayin'.