language


Our Barbary Coast book-dealing friend brought us Richard Wilbur‘s charming kids’ book A Pig in the Spigot (which, like much early Dr. Seuss, is really pretty sophisticated wordplay and designed to appeal more to adults), and as we were reading it this morning, we got to the devil page, in which the guy with the horns and the cape marauds through Mandeville, Louisiana. Since, as you know, I’m trying not to neglect Thing One’s Judeo-Christian cultural literacy, I made sure to point out to Thing One, “That guy is the devil!”

“He is!” said Thing One.

“He’s Christian,” I added.

“Yeah!” said Thing One.

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My cousin gave us some of her toddler’s hand-me-down sweatpants that are gathered at the ankle and are so much too long on our kid that they resemble the harem pants worn by Barbara Eden in 1964. So our son’s running around wearing them and K. remarks, “He looks like a samovar!”

“A Russian teapot?” I query.

“OK, maybe not a samovar,” he says. “A scimitar?”

At least he got the region right that time.

Of course, it’s better than the student who wrote to me last week: “Sorry I messed that up. I must of been having a severed blond Moment!”

In her particular case, I’d be more than happy to sever the blond. Of course, she’s small potatoes compared to one of the participants in the Multiple Repeaters Writing Skills class I taught at New York City Tech some years ago, who wrote (they were all ex-cons) in an essay “I will never forget I missed my Sons birth because I was incastrated.”

It’s a hard knock life.

It’s started happening: even my friends are leaving out their apostrophes. This is a feat of laziness I can only begin to imagine must be pleasurable or liberating (I imagine this because I cannot otherwise justify doing such needless violence to the language) for some people, mostly the kind of people who still write like the main character in “Flowers for Algernon,” with backwards r’s and a huge, childish scrawl; I dislike imagining that my friends are these people. I knew someone once who sent emails with no apostrophes whatsoever: his missives were full of “wont” and “cant” and no matter how often I explained to him that those are actually words, by themselves, and they mean very different things without that cute little punctuation mark, he never got it. He would look at a point somewhere to the left of my feet and mumble, “Usually Word puts them in for me.”

I see. So Word has now become your codependent enabler. The Microsoft empire has so seduced your mind that you can no longer produce language without its sterile, context-insensitive, mortifyingly generic little “editing” tools. You and Word are a team. You need each other. You understand each other. And here I have to come along and oppress you by demanding you actually pay attention to the words that are flowing into your keyboard, where your haphazard spelling will be deciphered willy-nilly by Spellcheck (r), resulting in such bits of prose genius as “he went to prison and was castrated for six years without parole,” and “the hill had been worn down by years of eroticism.”

I’m sorry, dear people, but I can’t let you get away with this. I was trying to hone the principle of the thing to a fine point, with which I would then eviscerate y’all, but I think the real reason you can’t get away with it is simple, and probably much more compelling:

It makes you look like fools.

Please, America, have some pride.