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.


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