For years, I copied favorite phrases in notebooks, as if to press them into my memory like flowers from a party.
“So,” I said, “What are you thinking? Up or down?”
I had joined the conversation of two young women at the grocery store. One was cashiering my groceries, and the other was bagging them. They were discussing a subject of critical importance: their hair and makeup for the prom.
“I don’t know,” the cashier said, then corrected herself. “Yes, I do. Not up because my hair hasn’t grown back yet.” She turned around to show me. “I’m real sorry I shaved the back of my head. I’m not sorry I shaved the side because that was real cute, but I’m sorry I shaved the back.”
I nodded in empathy. I could see that the part still growing in could be a problem. It hindered hairdo options.
“But you’re definitely going to have your makeup done, aren’t you?” asked the young woman bagging the groceries.
“Definitely. But I don’t know. The last time I had my makeup done it was real cute in person, but the pictures were awful. My nose was totally white in the pictures. Way too much foundation. Plus, it costs so much.”
I had no opinion or advice to offer on either hair or makeup, and they didn’t need my input. Here were two young women speaking from experience with evidence-based information. A bit indecisive, perhaps, but the right decision would surface as they talked it out.
These days, the way people talk — and speak, which is something different — is the epitome of “dumpster fire,” which is the 2016 Word of the Year selected by the American Dialect Society, despite it technically being two words. Dumpster fire is defined as “an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation.” It’s the new phrase for “train wreck.”
President Trump speaks with such dumpster fire, New York Times writer John McWhorter says he reads Trumpster quotes only at the end of the day with a finger of bourbon. The journalist says, however, that the president speaks as most of us talk casually — “false starts, jumpy inserts and repetition.” We can prove this ourselves by listening to people on call-in talk shows. In print, we rarely insert “you know” multiple times in a single, albeit rambling, sentence. McWhorter posits that American language is going the way of our informal dress.
How we speak and how we talk are two different languages. Most of us, however, try to up our game when we’re speaking in public or for print. But not always. Just look at the hatchet jobs people in public positions — politicians and business leaders especially — wrought every day in the news. Don’t we cringe at some of the Facebook posts of our friends? Subjects and verbs have become strangers one to another. The lowly pronoun “me” is banished. (Examples: “This city has been good to my family and myself.” “This is a photograph of my husband and I.”)
To be fair, writing the spoken word is not easy. Dashiell Hammett is famous for his realistic dialog, but he said getting it down that way on paper was much harder than transcribing conversations he overheard on the street. He had to work to make it sound real.
For a Valentine’s Day story, I once asked the late poet and professor Manly Johnson, “Why don’t we speak in rhyme all the time?” Because, he said, we try to imbue special events, solemn occasions and expressions of deep emotion or importance with special language. The enriched language gives the message deeper meaning.
I love language. When I speak publicly about books, I often title my presentation “My Love Affair with the English Language.” For years, I copied favorite phrases in notebooks, as if to press them into my memory like flowers from a party. I still do, but now I have also a whole wall of my home inscribed in washable Crayola. Some I choose for the message, some for the beauty of the language and some for joyful self-expression. Here are some examples:
“The sun, the darkness, the winds are all listening to what we now say.” — Geronimo
“Keep dancing until the lights go out.” — Actress Joanna Lumley
“Me? Whee!” — Muhammad Ali