Friday, July 22, 2005

Tempus Fugits

During the years I lived at home--until I wended my way off to college--my folks exposed us to some unusual euphemisms. Partly geographical due to my father's depression-era Iowan boyhood, and partly serendipitous due to my mother's facility with English as filtered through her dark sense of humor, these expressions peppered our familial lexicon and baffled those around us.

Like the word "biffy." Dad would ask us if we needed to go there. Or he would announce he was going there. Or we would guess he was going there when he strolled down the hall with the latest edition of Reader's Digest Condensed Books under his arm and make a left into the room that--for many families--functioned as a common person's library. Countless acquaintances throughout my life have queried me about the word and I am always surprised that everyone doesn't go to a "biffy." I finally found the word in my new dictionary--the one I bought because it contained the word "pissant." Turns out that my Dad's "biffy" is an Upper Midwestern word for an outdoor toilet (outhouse) or an indoor toilet, a possible alteration of the word "privy." So there.

As for my mother's contributions, they represented a variety of words and phrases that showcased her splayed humor. The title of this blog is something she used to say because she thought it more apt than the proverbial English "time flies." Any Latin scholar will tell you that there is no "s" on the end of "fugit" because it denotes a singular present tense on its own but my mother didn't care, and we've continued her mutilation of the phrase ever since. And she especially enjoyed the word "pissant." Both she and my Dad would occasionally encounter just the right person to whom they could ascribe the word.

I'm thinking about all this now for several reasons. Because language intrigues me. Words are important to me for myriad reasons, and I am increasingly sorry that some mighty good words are beyond the ken of ordinary people nowadays. I am especially annoyed by the loss of some words because they have been co-opted by some special interest group or other to describe something or someone that was spoken of differently in the not-so-distant past. And this week one of my bright seventh graders in our critical thinking class offered up her (mostly) unsolicited observation that "gay people are cool." (Right after we spent some serious class time defining the words "cool" and "uncool.")

This is the same class to which I introduced three of the foremost Greek philosophers and, in the discussion on Socrates, I remembered that his wife, Xanthippe, was rumored to be a shrew. The kids were quite surprised to learn that Xanthippe is sometimes used to denote a shrewish woman. And they had never before heard the word "termagant," which claims the same meaning. Ergo, we could suppose that Xanthippe was a termagant. (So is Nancy Pelosi sometimes but that's another blog.) To the kids' credit, their eyes did not glaze over and they asked if there were any other interesting words to describe people--especially problematic acquaintances in their spheres of influence.

So I offered up "pissant." With the caveat that this word was only to be addressed to really nasty peers with penchants for demeaning or denigrating others--others who, for whatever reason, are unable to defend themselves. Wow! The kids wrestled with the possibilities and came to the conclusion that there just might arise an occasion during junior high or early high school when the most powerful weapon against a verifiable bully could be the phrase "you are so uncool and a pissant, too!"

Granted, we all agreed to use discretion and make darned sure that we pulled this off in a very public place with lots of witnesses. Not too much of a stretch because bullies frequently operate in a fairly public square, so to speak. And we all agreed that the most powerful phrase uttered in public in school these days is "you're uncool/that's uncool." We also determined that it's not who's saying the phrase that causes heads to swivel, it's the recipient(s) who draw(s) the attention. We also pondered how the word "cool" has survived intact all these 40-50 years. Not a lot of popular words can claim such longevity.

Once upon a time within the past six or seven years I called a family member's behavior towards me "vituperative." My brother, after looking the word up for himself, agreed with me that the very best description for what he had witnessed was, indeed, vituperative. He called me recently to inform me that he found the rhetoric of some left-wingers to be, well, full of vituperation. I saluted his use of the word and commented that I found both sides of the national debate to be guilty of vituperating. I now have a new word for the kiddos this coming week because we have spent a great deal of time discussing how certain rhetoric and diction can cause polarization and make informed and intelligent debate nearly impossible. It can also destroy conversation.

Now if I can just avoid being a termagant about what I see as the erosion of perfectly good language, then I'll be cool. And if I can do my part to resurrect some more colorful words to deploy in what I perceive as a war on words (and language), that shall be really cool. And if some brave young person somewhere, sometime tells off an adolescent pissant, then I do believe that would be beyond cool. --"Cranky" AnnE

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