MARK TWAIN AND PA KELLY
By Jim Kent
Mark Twain was careful, almost reverential, about words. He is the one who said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."
Walter Crawford Kelly, Sr., is credited by his son with “Language is the worst means of communication known to man.” You should pay attention because his son was Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, the best comic strip of all time ever, and another guy who was keenly aware that words are powerful.
I used to remind my students that words are important and we should be careful with them, but we ought not be timid around them. There are no magic words that by themselves change the state of play in the universe. (Well, there are a couple. No matter what you’ve done, you are a citizen with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto until a judge bangs a gavel and says “Guilty.” The words make the change, not the jury or the lawbooks. Same is true in other forms of sport: The baseball scorekeeper does not change the board or the scorecard until an umpire says “Safe” or “Out." The words make the change.)
Over time, I have noticed several words we need to be more careful about. What follows probably sounds like a crotchety olde guy’s rant in the Andy Rooney tradition--and if “Rooneyrant” isn’t a word, it should be—but bear with me if you have time. Full disclosure, though: I am in fact a crotchety olde guy, so keep that in mind, too.
Rant warning 1. One that I think does a lot of damage is “race” when you mean “election.” In a race, it is often helpful to keep track of who’s ahead by how much and even why. In an election, this language distracts from the purpose of the exercise, which is ideally to be a contest about whose ideas are preferable. Who’s ahead in the polls at the moment is much easier to report on and understand, but it does give the audience a completely false sense of what we should be paying attention to.
This language also leads to the nonsense in every election wherein after the polls are closed everywhere, breathless commentators talk about somebody “catching up” in the late returns. This is not only on its face stupid—the battle is over and all that’s left is the body count—but encourages the ill-informed to suspect foul play if initial reports change as new data come in. You, Gentle Reader, will not be sorely taxed to think of examples of this.
Rant warning 2 While we’re at it—and this one is really hopeless on my part—let’s work on the difference between “gender” and “sex.” Americans took up “gender” because in our very peculiar culture Americans can’t say “sex” without blushing or giggling. It’s really quite simple: Sex is the plumbing in your nether region, whether it was original equipment or modified later, and gender is what you do with your sex or feel like doing. When you were born, you were assigned a sex based on the plumbing that came into view when you popped out. This may or may not be the same as or even similar to the gender that you discern, usually gradually, through your own life’s experiences.
It is therefore preposterous for expectant parents to announce a “gender reveal” party. Leaving aside the fundamental pointlessness of the whole idea, parents do not know an impending kid’s gender and probably won’t for a while and maybe never. They know the impending kid’s sex at birth but they can’t bring themselves to use the word, and they have no way of knowing whether the kid will later get a change in plumbing anyway. This seems like a quaint and harmless avoidance, but it is at least a contributor to some of the madness surrounding the issue.
Rant warning 3. Let’s do away with “trigger” in its currently popular sense. A trigger is automatic and inexorable. There may be words or events that affect you profoundly, but they do not automatically and inexorably require a specific behaviour or even a specific emotion. You cannot be “triggered” into shooting someone or drinking or swearing at the archbishop. You can feel an urge, and I do not deny the likelihood that it could be a very strong urge, to do those things, but if it’s a “trigger” you can’t do anything about it. Can we talk instead about urges or impulses or even temptations instead of mechanical devices?
Rant warning 3a. This is a corollary to my insistence that it is always inaccurate and often dangerous to say you have “no choice” in some situation. You do. The other choices may be really bad, but they’re there. If I stick a gun in your ribs and say, “Your money or your life,” I am giving you a choice. And by the way, I’m not presenting you with the full menu of your choices. You could scream real loud, or you could fall on the ground and twitch and pretend to be mad, or you could pretend not to speak English, or you could try a sharp knee to groin. (That one is my favourite, if anyone is wondering, but it tends to work only on male muggers; see “plumbing,” supra.)
Rant warning 4. I also think we should abandon “African-American” unless we’re talking about someone like Barack Obama who really is one. Americans tend to use this term for anyone who looks dark, but: Lots of black people are actual Africans. A student of mine tells a story about one of her white co-workers who was sent to Nigeria on a computer support mission and who called the office from the Lagos airport breathlessly informing the boss, “This place is full of African-Americans!” which of course it wasn’t, and the story is better because the boss was black.
Even Africans don’t necessarily call themselves that. They are Nigerian or even Ibo and no way Americans of any sort.
Lots of black people, especially from the islands, say they’re Jamaican or Haitian or some other nationality, and not African-Americans or any brand of Africans or any brand of Americans.
My favourite is a guy we knew who was like fourth-generation Afrikaaner who had emigrated to North Carolina and was as blond and blue-eyed as you might expect. He checked the “African-American” box every time there was one. When he showed up for the interview someone was bound to comment that he wasn’t black. He would remind them as gently as he could muster that they hadn’t asked him about skin colour. He was African and he was American.
Once I had a black faculty colleague who was about my age. I said to him, “For a long time you were coloured, and then you were Negro, and then you were Afro-American. What do you say?”
He replied, “I say, ‘Hi. I’m Joe.’” That day is still a way off, but it seemed like what we should aspire to.
Rant warnings 6 through 8 A quirk that is probably only mine is that I don’t use the term “higher office” in politics. A bunch of people in a free and fair election have said they trust you to make decisions for them, and there is no “higher office.” There are offices with bigger constituencies and broader policy scopes and God Nose higher pay, but President of the United States is not a higher office than school board member. Elections are sacred because people are, and I am deeply (and increasingly frequently) offended by attempts to undermine or denigrate them. But that’s just me. You, Gentle Reader, are excused from agreeing with this.
Small and pointless improvements I propose: I think instead of “hard-line” political believers of any stripe, we should deploy “flat-line.” And as for what used to be called Tweets before the platform became X, I propose “Xcretions.”
And in case you’re still reading this, the best way to help someone understand what rock&roll is really all about (and there are still people who don’t get this) is to make them listen to Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive Fifty-Five.” It is not the best rock&roll song of all time, which is the Stones’ original version of “Honky-Tonk Women in case you were wondering, but the fact that I can’t explain why is what it makes it so. That there is not such a thing as soft rock is, however, the topic for a real Rooneyrant. Later.
© 2023 Jim Kent