Saturday, September 17, 2016

LANGUAGE ON THE LOOSE


Years ago when I worked in Personnel and edited a news bulletin for Knapp Hall, the home of Louisiana Agricultural Extension Service, Marjorie Arbour, Editor of Agricultural Publications, LSU, read my informal, interoffice news sheet and invited me to audit her Ag Journalism Course 150. The class was a graduate course for Ag Extension workers, but she slipped me into the class. For the concluding exam, I was called upon to give my first oral book review as an example of a special interest feature story.  I chose to review It's Easy To Increase Your Vocabulary by William Morris. This past week, I re-read the review and enjoyed a few laughs, especially while perusing the part of the review in a chapter concerning specialized language entitled “Grandfather’s Political Slang.”

At that time (the 1950’s), Morris stated that the “relatively mild epithets exchanged by candidates for public office in recent campaigns contrasted sharply with the brash, colorful, and occasionally libelous language of campaigns in the 19th century…” Ha! Fast forward another two-hundred years, and it appears that we’ve recovered our “brash…libelous language;” e.g., Morris’s description of a “buncombe artist”: “a specialist in deceit, especially dealing with hifalutin’ promises he has no intention of keeping,” or “cock and bull story,” which is “a fanciful, rambling yarn.” And here’s one that we hope will become a reality: “hoist by his own petard,” a figurative expression meaning “to destroy by one’s own trickery or inventiveness.”

A word Morris introduced to his readers, coined by Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was one that could be included in the political slang section: “snarky.” Snarky falls “between sneering and snide” in meaning and could easily describe several of today’s political candidates. Then there’s “tell it to the marines,” which means “tell your preposterous story to someone gullible enough to believe it.” Or how about “tinker’s dam,” which refers to “something utterly without value.” Not to mention “whipping boy,” who is “a person punished for the mistakes made by someone else.”

The list of specialized words was long, and I leave it to the reader to apply the words to whomever they wish, since I’m not in the habit of writing political columns and am more inured to writing book reviews, travelogues, agricultural treatises, etc. My review of Easy To Increase Your Vocabulary brought in a “Red Apple,” or the equivalent of an A+, and was hardly a propitious reference for the hard news story, but it was a fun exercise explaining the trade vocabularies of cowboys, politicians, baseball players, and circus clowns (the latter reminiscent of the politicians’ vocabularies).

One more phrase Morris described that may belong in the political realm is “crocodile tears.” It seems that crocodile tears originated in Greek and Egyptian folklore. The legend is that the great lizard, the crocodile, attracted its victims by loud moaning and then shed tears while it devoured them. And with that description and, in the word of H. L. Mencken, American humorist and critic, I’ll put a “kibosh” to this diatribe about words that are created to fit special needs in a colloquial paradise.



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