Friday, December 19, 2008

God damn these electric sex pants!

Have you saved a word today?

By David Murray
A writer's campaign to keep our language rich

All it takes for good words to pass from the language is for enough good writers to stand around and do nothing.

Who said that? I did, a couple of years ago, when I smacked my elbow on a desk and exclaimed,"Ow, that smarts!"

The young editor sitting there gave me a blank look. "Smarts?" she asked.

"Yes, smarts—you know, hurts!" I replied, unable to conceal my annoyance at having to clarify and define my howl of pain.

She'd never heard that term. Rubbing my elbow, I stormed around the office like a madman, asking various people about smarts. I discovered, to my astonishment, that no one under 26 had ever heard the term used to describe sharp pain.

Of course, smarts isn't the first word to disappear from our collective vocabulary. Nobody calls anybody butterfingers anymore, and no one says untoward, either.

I like hanging around old guys, and whenever I do, I hear words that passed out of everyday American usage years ago. A friend of mine, when he hits a bad golf shot, calls himself a nitwit. I laugh every time.

My dad describes a pretty girl as a tomato, and when he's happy, he says, "I'm in the catbird seat."

Another friend, when he's got some money, says, "I'm in the chips."

But the king of old words is a 54-year-old guy I know. This baby-boomer-going-on-octogenarian never uses a modern term when an old one will do. He never says food when he can say chow. As in, "You ever had Polish chow?" He never says bar when he can say barroom, and he never says barroom when he can say saloon. He never calls a meeting. He always proposes a powwow. (He'd like to use the ancient palaver, but this stuff has its limits; people have to know what you're talking about. Or do they?)

"Don't queer the deal," he'll warn about a potential business scheme that could be easily derailed by too many people talking about it. "Keep it on the QT," he'll add.

If he's in trouble, he won't say so. He'll say he's in Dutch, a phrase whose etymology he's explained a hundred times and I still can't remember. If he's not in Dutch, he's in the soup.

He's a one-man defender of many old terms and expressions, and he's constantly explaining them. Making hay, for instance: "Why do you make hay while the sun shines?" he'll ask rhetorically. "Because hay isn't hay until you cut it. And you can't cut it while it's wet, or it'll rot. So you have to make hay while the sun shines."

There are good old euphemisms for sex from the days when we heated our houses with fireplaces and coal-burning furnaces. In those days, one man might say to another: "I need to have my ashes hauled."

My friend says he likes these words because they reference our historical
roots. Which is exactly why they're losing currency. It's said that language is a living thing and to try to engineer linguistic change or insist on its stability is a foolish endeavor. Perhaps. But we're writers, and one of the great benefits of the job is that we have more widespread influence on the language than anyone else.

I propose a movement: Pick your favorite old word or expression, and jam it into
your writing and your conversations wherever it will fit, or even where it won't.

"That dog won't hunt," you say?

Now you're getting the idea.


Angel said...

I can't believe no one was familiar with smarts as it applies to pain. I'd venture to say that I've heard or used over half of those phrases quite regularily over the span of my life.

Kids these days.