No Ifs, Ands, or Buts

Last Saturday evening, my husband received a cryptic text message from Stan, a friend and fellow trombonist. It was something straight out of The Matrix, an indecipherable garble of letters and numbers, and Wayne decided he’d have to tease Stan about it at church the next day.

He wasted no time and shouted across the orchestra room, “Stan, what are you doing butt dialing me in the middle of the night?”

The older man’s head whipped up, a deep furrow creasing his forehead, and he snapped, “Son, you ought not talk like that in the Lord’s house.”

Wayne looked at me, panicked—like a kid who’d forgotten his one and only line in the school play. He stammered and sheepishly asked, “What did I say? ‘Butt’?”

“Worse than that,” Stan replied. “I’m not mad, but you just shouldn’t use sex talk here.”

Then it clicked in my head, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I kept on even though my gut hurt and tears filled my eyes.

“Wayne,” I said, trying to catch my breath, “he thought you meant ‘booty call.’”

A few beats later, Wayne got the joke as well. Then the only one not snickering was Stan. It was then my rather unenviable job to explain the difference between “booty call” and “butt dial” to a man thirty years my senior. It was uncomfortable to say the least, like having to tell your teacher the meaning of a dirty word when she (and you) would be better off if she remained blissfully oblivious. But, thankfully, by the time I finished, he was shaking his head and laughing too—a deep, whole body chuckle that made his shoulders shake.

Several years ago, I taught ESL classes and enjoyed many zany moments like this. And if there’s one thing those amazingly determined students taught me it’s that words matter. Especially when they have different connotations. For example, when it comes to her body, a woman would much rather be described as “voluptuous” than “chubby.” The same holds true for someone who’s good with money; I’m willing to bet “thrifty” is much preferable to “stingy.” (I wouldn’t know as I’m as prodigal as they come.)

And vocabularies, unlike currency, don’t always convert well. Consider the word “fag.” Say it in England, and a Brit will go looking for his pack of smokes. However, it’s disrespectful on this side of the pond. And you better not call your bag a “fanny pack” when you’re looking for some bob to pay for your fish and chips. It will end with you being roundly mocked.

Words also morph over time, changing their colors as easily as a chameleon does. The word “awful” once meant “full of awe” (something wonderful and amazing.) Now, it’s the last word you’d use to describe the Mona Lisa. Same goes for “manufacture.” It’s original meaning was “made by hand.” Now that term only applies to mass produced junk coming from the bowels of a factory. That’s why the sentence, “The awful manufactured lamp made my house look bright and gay” means something radically different than it did a century or so ago.

Yeah, words matter—no ifs, ands, or “butts” about it.