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.

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20 thoughts on “No Ifs, Ands, or Buts

  1. Easy mistake to make–butt dial, booty call. What a fabulous story you have now! And some great points about the importance of language. Such a lighthearted post. Thanks for the laughs and the insight =)

  2. Hahahaha… I saw that one coming. But so hilarious! ESL makes everything more interesting… in teaching body parts to my students, I learned the hard way that “chin” in Japanese is also a body part, but not at all the same one… yup, it’s probably the first one you thought of (O_O)

    1. Now I’m curious about “chin.” 🙂 I shall have to consult the Google to get the answer for myself. Good to know I’m not the only one who has had the joy of teaching ESL. Thanks for the read and the comment!

      1. I’ve never found looking up body parts on google to be the best idea so I’ll spare you that… if you say it twice it’s little kid speak for something only little boys have… there yet? 😉

  3. as a word nerd, I enjoyed your post! Bill Bryson wrote a book on our language which I found fascinating, even if filled with the kind of facts that are quite trivial. And I also taught ESL…cannot recall any specifics but explaining the nuances of our language was always fascinating to me.

    1. ESL students’ favorite word is “Why?” They want to know why a rule is structured a certain way, why a word is wrong, why it’s spelled differently than it sounds. They made me step up my game as an educator those few semesters I tutored and taught them. I’ll have to look up that book by Bill Bryson. Thanks for the tip….and the read!

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