I Say, Chives: Whatever Happened to Language?

I Say, Chives: Whatever Happened to Language?

I know.  Language is fluid, expansive, inclusive, and mutable.  Uh huh, and yet, an entire, dare I say, class of language appears to have evaporated more quickly than one (see?) might have guessed.

Language is still  fun and full of frolic as the yearly reporting of words absorbed into dictionaries attests, and some of the new are every bit as good as the old.  By good, I mean evocative, surprisingly exact, inescapably the right and only word for a condition which has in the moment come into existence.  Well, I suspect that the word “ghosting” used to describe the circumstance by which a spurned someone is completely cut off arises out of experiences that might have arrived in any age, but, still, good word.  Could we have limped along without “froyo”?  Probably, but the world seems brighter with froyo in it.  “Shade” has long been a perfectly utilitarian noun and verb; we can give a hearty shout out to “shady”, cousin to the Briticism, “dodgy”, and refer to the shading of truth with absolute confidence that we will be understood.

“Throwing shade”, however, is a trickier expression.  Merriam Webster defines throwing shade in this fashion: “to express contempt or disrespect for someone publicly especially by subtle or indirect insults or criticisms”.   It may be that the expression was first spotted in the 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. Jennie Livingston’s vibrant picture of Black and Latino drag queens and the last days of ball culture in New York City.  It has certainly moved into the  mainstream since then.

The expression has arrived with full force in the reporting of sports news on those days in which there is no news.  “Were LeBron (James) and (Jim) Boeheim throwing shade?”  “Did LeBron James Throw Shade at Kyrie Irving Again?”  Stay tuned.  Top of the hour.  Around-the-clock LeBron non-stories dripping with shade.  My favorite shade blurb thus far accompanies a picture of Rihanna (Barbadian pop icon/ ambassador) shaking hands with a fan courtside at a Brooklyn Nets basketball game.  “Hands say friends.  Eyes say shade”.

So, huzzah for the relentless swirl of old and new language and for a diversity of manners of speech.  I’ll admit that we Boomers came up with expressions I hope have died and are largely forgotten – “groovy” being the most notably affected pseudo-hip affirmation in modern times.  Ok, “what’s your bag?” was pretty awful, and “bippy”, as in, “you bet your bippy” come very close.  The best of the new survives; the worst, well, can also survive, but that’s not the point.

The point is that lovely, slightly stuffy, language once flourished, primarily in books of a certain genre and on the screen.  This come to mind as yet another tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective premiered last week.  Holmes and Watson, played by comics Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, apparently bumble about with comedic good cheer, adopting the sort of mangled consonant gurgle Americans think of as the delivery used by educated Brits at the turn of the last century.  Their expressions, as one would expect, though amusing, are hardly of the period.  One suspects that Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle’s Watson rarely used the expression, “Mother of Shit”.  If he did, I missed it several times around.  Incongruous and in the trailer perhaps funny, but not really to the epoch born.

Watson might have said in expressing his surprise,”What the deuce is this?”  The devil being frequently called to task for all sorts of unpleasantness.  Watson was, of course, a physician, ostensibly trained in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and also a military man having served in India and Afghanistan.  Holmes and his brother Mycroft speak with the assurance of lads raised in the comfortable ease of country gentry.  A more elevated manner of speech arrived in the novels written by Dorothy L. Sayers.  Her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, DSO), son of Mortimer Gerald Bredon Wimsey, 15th Duke of Denver and Honoria Lucasta, educated at Eton and Oxford, devoted to criminology, bibliophily, music, and cricket, negotiated the solving of crime with impeccable grace, beautifully dressed by his valet, Bunter.  The following exchange is found in the 1923 publication  of Whose Body.

“That’s your idea, is it, Bunter? Noblesse oblige—for a consideration. I daresay you’re right. Then you’re better off than I am, because I’d have to behave myself to Lady Worthington if I hadn’t a penny. Bunter, if I sacked you here and now, would you tell me what you think of me?”

“No, my lord.”

“You’d have a perfect right to, my Bunter, and if I sacked you on top of drinking the kind of coffee you make, I’d deserve everything you could say of me. You’re a demon for coffee, Bunter—I don’t know how you do it, because I believe it to be witchcraft, and I don’t want to burn eternally.”

Sayers, who was among the first women to be awarded a degree at Oxford, was not an aristo, but she picked up the lingo of the right schools and clubs, as did P.G. Wodehouse as evidenced in this exchanges between his central character, the feckless Bertie Wooster, and his valet, Jeeves in the eponymous, My Man Jeeves.

“Jeeves,” I said that evening. “I’m getting a check suit like that one of Mr. Byng’s.”

“Injudicious, sir,” he said firmly. “It will not become you.”

“What absolute rot! It’s the soundest thing I’ve struck for years.”

“Unsuitable for you, sir.”

Well, the long and the short of it was that the confounded thing came home, and I put it on, and when I caught sight of myself in the glass I nearly swooned. Jeeves was perfectly right. I looked a cross between a music-hall comedian and a cheap bookie. Yet Monty had looked fine in absolutely the same stuff. These things are just Life’s mysteries, and that’s all there is to it.”

It occurs to me that the phrase, “Injudicious  … unsuitable for you, sir” fits almost any situation in which I am at odds with a decision I consider unfortunate.  Bertie and his pals, including the unfortunately named Gussie Fink-Nottle, mix public (private) school slang with odd locutions of their own, as immortalized in Fink-Nottle’s Sodbury Grammar School speech:

“Boys,” said Gussie, “I mean ladies and gentlemen and boys, I will not detain you long, but I propose on this occasion to feel compelled to say a few auspicious words. Ladies – boys and ladies and gentlemen – we have all listened with interest to the remarks of our friend here who forgot to shave this morning – I don’t know his name, but then he didn’t know mine – Fitz-Wattle, I mean, absolutely absurd – which squares things up a bit – and we are all sorry that the Reverend What-ever-he-was-called should be dying of adenoids, but after all, here today, gone tomorrow, and all flesh is as grass, and what not, but that wasn’t what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was this – and I say it confidently – without fear of contradiction – I say, in short, I am happy to be here on this auspicious occasion and I take much pleasure in kindly awarding the prizes, consisting of the handsome books you see laid out on that table. As Shakespeare says, there are sermons in books, stones in the running brooks, or, rather, the other way about,[16] and there you have it in a nutshell.”

Indeed.  All flesh is grass.

To return for a moment to the purpose of this short screed, some phrases have a short half-life, disappearing before being absorbed into the permanent collection of words to be used on a daily basis.  I’ll nominate five right here, right now, and for better or worse pledge to include them in my conversations with the general public this week.  The first of these, and the easiest to fling about is “jolly”, not the Santa and bowl of jelly jolly, but the extremely urgent commanding, “You will jolly well fill my prescription while I stand here”, or the extremely complimentary affirmation, “They serve a jolly good sandwich at Sams Samwhich stand.”  Another affirmation?  “Rather!”  “Did you think Rihanna looked smashing at the Nets game last week?  Rather!”  Rather as a sly adjective is also quite useful.  “I felt rather timid in approaching her.”

Encounter someone of unimpeachable character, dependable, forthright, honest? That paragon is a “brick”.   “He’s been a brick since the indictment came down.”  On the other end of the spectrum, the friend who lets one down has also been beastly to countless others.  “Beastly” brings to mind the more rapacious beasts, not the fuzzy creatures great and small.  Finally, having used the word “spiffy” for decades, I’m resolved to use the more decorous “smart”, more restrained than swanky and less obscure than modish.

Oh, and I’m not going to the picture theater to see Holmes and Watson as the hope of finding a trove of expressions chronologically inaccurate but blooming marvellous is rather unlikely.


152 Days Until Fire Season

152 Days Until Fire Season

I live in Oregon, only a few miles north of the California border.  The local paper of record, The Medford Mail Tribune, arrives with close observation of the daily events that animate Jackson County, from the sudden emergence of hemp production as a primary agricultural enterprise (“2018 – The Year of Hemp”) to the celebration of local teams (“Crater High School, Home of the Comets, 5A State Champions in baseball!”).  Big news at the start of the new year is that motorists may now take dead deer and elk from “grille to grill”, as the paper so tastefully put it.

The paper arrives each day with a large box bordered in red on the front page announcing the number of days left until the start of Fire Season.  I wasn’t expecting that sort of countdown to be part of my daily life here, but then, I hadn’t expected to live next to a hemp field or to cheer the Crater Comets.  We moved to the Rogue Valley from Coastal California, a quiet beach town halfway between Ventura and Santa Barbara.  Our home was adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest.  It’s a large forest; its tendrils stretch from Palmdale in the Antelope Valley to Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County, almost three thousand square miles, almost two million acres.  The forest has a second location in Monterey County, including the Big Sur coast.

When we arrived in 1996, Santa Barbarans still talked about the Painted Cave Fire of 1990, a fire that burned about five thousand acres, a fire blazing at a height of more than seventy feet at its worst, a fire caused by arson during a hot spell in which the temperature had reached 108 degrees.  We knew several families who had lost homes in that fire, most of whom rebuilt in the same  area, in the canyons and passes between Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez.  During our time in Santa Barbara County, we saw ten more fires move quickly as Sundowner Winds brought by high pressure to the north preceded the Santa Ana Winds charging from the south.  We had moved to Oregon just before the Thomas Fire, pushed by the Santa Ana winds, swept from Santa Paula in Ventura County to Santa Barbara, torching almost three hundred thousand acres, destroying more than a thousand homes, and bringing about two billion dollars in damage to the area.

Fire is now a way of life in this region.  The causes are many and blame moves at the speed of a Santa Ana blast.  Timothy Egan’s remarkable book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that saved America, published in 2009, documented the Fire of 1910, a fire that destroyed an area of Idaho and Montana the size of the State of Connecticut in a weekend.  It’s a book of large purpose, examining the impact of the fire as well as its causes, and it’s a book I used in 2010 as the central point of focus in a school wide exercise in inquiry as it presented issues of immigration, large-scale exploitation of the western lands, and the emergence of a progressive movement resulting in the establishment of National Parks and the conservation of public land.

It wasn’t a hit.

Although the region had been damaged by eight large fires at that time, the small town in which we lived and taught had escaped danger.  We drove through fire ravaged areas, but we hadn’t faced evacuation and the loss of our own homes.  The Thomas Fire changed all that.  The school’s playing fields were used by firefighters from around the world as the base from which the Thomas Fire was fought.  Before the fire was contained, all students and all teachers had been evacuated.  The book appears more prescient now.

Southern Oregon was devastated last summer by raging fire to the south and north, resulting in a period of about six weeks in which heavy smoke so filled the valley that readings of air quality determined the daily business of the region, essentially devastating towns such as Ashland, dependent on income earned during the summer months.   We’ve come to expect summer after summer of extreme fire events as global warming has altered the landscape and high temperatures accelerate winds carrying fire to the region.

152 Days until Fire Season.  It’s the new reality and one we are only starting to understand.