When There Are No Words

The world is filled with perfect words.

Sometimes, it’s because of the way they sound. Is there a better term to describe the sound mud makes under your boot that squelch? Could bacon do anything other than sizzle in the pan?

Other times, words possess a certain rightness because they’re the ideal way to express a mood or feeling. Take languish for instance, a word that means “to become weak; to droop or fade.” With all its long vowels, it slides slowly from the tongue and softens the mouth. Even the “g” in its center hangs like a fat cat’s belly, as if it barely has the strength to hold itself upright.

There are words like décolletage, anathema, palimpsest, and paronymous, all desirable for their rarity. There are also well-worn ones —friend, laugh, peace—that are threadbare from being frequently pulled from our linguistic back pockets. And like the Velveteen Rabbit, they are all the more loved for their familiarity.

Some words are so precise that they don’t have an equivalent in another language. French has retrouvailles, which means “the happiness of meeting again after a long time.” And German—a language known for plosive and guttural sounds—boasts backpfeifengesicht or “a face that cries out for a fist in it.”

English speakers know all to well that our mother tongue favors quantity over quality. So finding the perfect word means we must rummage through piles of synonyms to it suss out. Why, even a simple word like happy has more than fifty cousins—everything from cheerful and merry to ecstatic and jubilant. And like the crayons in a child’s color box, each one is a slightly different shade, a degree warmer or cooler, brighter or dimmer than those around it.

But there are also times when there is no perfect word, no combination of consonants and vowels can capture exactly we want to say.

My grandparents outside their home Arkansas in 1957.
My grandparents outside their home Arkansas in 1957.

My grandfather has Alzheimer’s disease, and his mind has declined to the point that institutionalized care is necessary. Thankfully, I can use the term in the loosest sense of the word. Far from institutional, the place where he lives has fewer than thirty patients and is filled with the trappings of home—everything from vases full of fresh flowers to hand towels in the bathrooms. People volunteer to read to and play games with the residents. A hairdresser comes in once a week to give the men a quick trim and the ladies a wash and set. Home cooked meals and snacks are served at the same time each day in the communal dining area. I’ve stayed in hotels that didn’t boast such amenities.

But this isn’t a cozy bed and breakfast. It’s a place for people who will never improve, and like the Eagles say of their symbolic Hotel California, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” This was made clear to me when I realized the doors there required a code to get out as well as in. It’s a simple sequence: 2-0-1-5. The current year. Four digits visitors can’t forget but that their loved ones can barely remember. Because when memories are scattered like Pick-Up Stix across the kitchen floor, keeping track of time isn’t as simple as it once was.

Because I live several hours away from my grandfather, I was the only member of my family who had yet to visit him in this place, and that made me feel as if I was letting him down somehow, shirking my duties as a granddaughter because I had yet to take stock of his situation.

My grandfather was the manager of Wal-Mart #36 in Paragould, Arkansas. He was respected and beloved by his employees.
My grandfather was the manager of Wal-Mart #36 in Paragould, Arkansas. He was respected and beloved by his employees.

So I went with my mother, grandmother, husband, and kid cousin to sit with him for a few hours. We planned on enjoying the mild Florida weather in the large screened-in porch out back, to sit in the swings and talk of pleasanter times. But the instant we walked through the door, one of the patients saw my grandmother and cried, “Play! Please play!”

Unlike me, she visits daily, and part of her routine involves sitting down at the wheezy, grumbling piano to plunk out familiar tunes like “God Bless America” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in addition to the many hymns she can perform from memory. She nods and pats the poor woman’s spindly hands reassuringly.

As she plays, her cherry red acrylic fingernails clicking on the plastic keys like a woodpecker jabbing in search of a juicy beetle, many of the patients grow still and close their eyes. Some sing. For others, the verses and choruses vanished long ago, but the tune is still there, stubborn until the end. And so they hum.

My grandfather is one of the latter. And as my grandmother finishes the final verse of “He Hideth My Soul” and switches over to “The Old Rugged Cross,” I watch his trembling lips struggle to form the once familiar words….

“On a hill far away stood and old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame…”

How many times has he sung this? I wondered. How many camp meetings, gospel sings, and Sunday services? And the words are just gone?

My grandfather, grandmother, mother, and aunt -- Father's Day 1991
My grandfather, grandmother, mother, and aunt — Father’s Day 1991

What was it I felt in that moment? It was both pity and something deeper. There was pride too, because Alzheimer’s hadn’t claimed every inch of him. Frustration. Rage. Confusion. Heartache certainly. And there was also love—a tenderness so fierce it could crush bone. They were all correct words in their way, but there wasn’t one that represented the sum total.

I could see it on my cousin’s face however. It was the mix of sadness, confusion, and grief that comes when you realize your life has been irrevocably changed—and not for the better.

I knew he saw the same expression on mine as we both sat fighting back tears, the kind that constrict your throat and make your eyes burn but never quite spill over. For that small mercy, you’re grateful. Because once you start sobbing, it will crack you wide open and release those emotions words don’t dare lay claim to. And despite the fact you are finally able to voice your hurt, you do so in a language only you can understand.

 

The Family -- Thanksgiving 2014
The Family — Thanksgiving 2014

 

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.

Like, We Don’t Talk Good No More and Junk

My friends on Facebook have been passing this image around for the past few days, and I believe no fewer than ten of them have posted it on my wall or tagged me in it on theirs. At first, it made me laugh just by virtue of the topic itself, and I then began to snicker at the sheer number of people whose first thought was, “I bet Jamie will like this” when they read it for the first time.

I’ve been called a stickler, a word nerd, and a nitpicky know-it-all. The labels Grammar Narc, Grammar Ninja, and a Grammar Nazi have all been written in haste and stuck to my chest like nametags. Oftentimes, people I know and love do it in jest, but sometimes the terms come across as slightly more pejorative than facetious. When people I meet find out I once was an English teacher or that I copy edit for a living, they throw up their hands and almost always reply, “I’ll have to watch what I say around you!” I guess they think I have a stash of red pens in my hair and am just waiting for an opportunity to wield them like a samurai on a battlefield in feudal Japan.

I hurl grammar with deadly accuracy!

When anyone on television states, “This works faster,” my husband knows I will reply, “…more quickly” and roll my eyes. I patronize Publix because it is the only grocery store I know of that has “10 Items or Fewer” on their express lane signs instead of “10 Items or Less.” (If you don’t know why the former is correct, I suggest you educate yourself about count and noncount nouns.)

Yes, I know all the proper ways to punctuate sentences and firmly believe the use of the Oxford is necessary, delightful, and apropos. I choose to use words like myopic, sententious, pulchritudinous, akimbo, and badinage because each of them has etymological value; they are a part of the history of the English language and deserve, like the Blue whale or the wild Mustang, to be preserved for future generations.

Voldemort cleans up nicely!

I’ve fought the battle for decades—as a writing tutor, an editor, and an educator—and I’m tired of apologizing for knowing the right answers and being derided when I ask others learn them. That’s why Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Finnes just moved from “Greatly Admired” to “Personal Hero” status in my book.

This week, he made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. When asked about the bard’s continuing relevance in modern culture, he stated , “Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.”

Mr. Twisleton-Wykeham-Finnes primarily blames social media sites like Twitter and sound bites for the atrocious decay of the English language, and I have to say that while I concur with him in part, I can’t lay the blame solely at technology’s feet. (Pun intended!) No one put a gun to our heads and demanded that we communicate in 140 characters or fewer. We chose to do so, and we did it with a reckless abandon that would make Syme clap his hands in glee because Newspeak has finally reached its zenith.

E-mail loosened the rules, but it is archaic for most people today, phased out in favor of texting, posting, and other forms of communication that take place via agile thumbs rather than dexterous minds.

The latest craze, which often leaves me gibbering like a low level inmate in Arkham Asylum, is the seemingly arbitrary addition or removal of letters from what would otherwise be a coherent sentence. For example, one of my former students recently shared this literary gem with the rest of us:

myyyy MOM saiddddd iiiiii cannnnnn goooooooooooo 2 the GAAAMMMEEEEEEEE 2niteeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!! :- D <3<3<3

In case you don’t care to translate, the young lady was expressing her elation over the fact her mother had decided to allow her to attend a sporting event at school that evening. She drove the full measure of her bliss home by using a plethora of exclamation points, a wide grin smiley, and three hearts to show that she does indeed love her benevolent parent.

Like Dian Fossey, I spent many years living in the wild with another species (A.K.A “teenagers”) trying to interpret their body language and various methods of communication. From my research, I gleaned several interesting truths. One, if you add extra letters to the end of a word, it means that you are emphasizing it. Adults have been known to do this as well, typically in the interest of sarcasm—“I am sooooooooo tired of meetings!” for example. However, most people limit the effect to one emphatic word rather than appearing as if we took a header into the keyboard.

ALL CAPS, once a total faux pas on “teh intertubes,” is now acceptable for the same purpose. No longer are you “yelling” if you choose to lean on the caps lock button. Also, while most people can’t tell me what a homonym, homophone, or homograph is, they’re all for using it when it shortens the time between texts. Hence, the use of “2” for “to” or “too” in written language these days.

The removal of letters, mostly vowels, is also cause for great concern. It was all well and good when they lifted them on game shows like Bumper Stumpers, but to simply let them fall out of a word like loose teeth is deplorable.

If you’ve not seen it, this is what passes for thoughtful communication in some circles:

yeh dya remembr , i lst contrl! Nearly sure brad fell off!

I don’t have any clue as to the context of this statement, so I can’t help you with that. However, I think this roughly translates to, “Yes. Do you remember how I lost control? I was fairly sure Brad fell off of ____________.” (I couldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, so I added space where the unmentioned object he plummeted from belongs.)

None of the words in the “full length” sentence are terribly difficult to spell, but, for some reason, it is acceptable to cut them at will. Spacing between commas and excessive exclamation points in addition to all this makes me want to do an impression of Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

Like Cassandra, I’ve been warning others about the flippant usage of words and settling for “good enough” when it comes to communication. Words have the power to inspire people, for good or ill, and, like a weapon, they must be respected. God entrusted us with them for glorious and matchless purposes, and we’re squandering them, tossing them aside like disposable paper cups by a water cooler.

How different would the American Revolution have been had Patrick Henry not uttered sentences like these in his speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775?

If we wish to be free if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight!

What might our nation look like today without Martin Luther King’s rallying cry for brotherhood before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963?

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

I’m not asking for a total return to the rules of yesteryear. I understand that the English language is a kind of living, breathing creature with a mutability that has allowed it to flourish around the globe for centuries. This truth alone is enough to convince me it is worth defending, but even more precious than our language’s history is the desolate future we’ll surely face without it.