The Oxymoron’s Guide to Rambling
“It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.” – Moliére
William Safire has made a career as America’s literary guide – assisting the grammatically challenged each week to navigate the great mountain ranges of the etymology – the history and roots of words. Quick to identify the ancient epicenters of our lingua franca, Safire’s laser orienteering offers his readers an entertaining deconstruction of the DNA of grammar. Under his deft instruction, any literary rambler can become more self-sufficient as they seek to master the more advanced landscapes of our native tongue.
As a neophyte wordsmith, I enjoy exploring the blue vernacular highways of English. My preoccupation with what Noel Coward described as “people divided by a common language “was initially stimulated by my pursuit of a bachelor degree in Literature and then hyperactivated by the likes of Safire, Buckley, Stegner and Bierce. My hobby turned to obsession while living abroad. In England, I was routinely barraged with surrogate verbs and bizarre changeling nouns that supplanted the terms and phrases that were critical cultural rivets to my social and mental way of life. To cope, I needed to understand their root meanings and weave them into my everyday existence.
It started one innocent afternoon when my son came home from school in his emblemed green jumper and blue corduroy pants asking me if he could have some crisps. To a native Californian, a “crisp” was a drugged out surfer dude.
“He means potato chips,” my Anglo-American spouse mused.
Weeks later, my other son leaned over and whispered to me, “Daddy, I think I messed my knickers.” I worried that within a few months, I would need an interpreter to speak to my own kids. I agonized even more that years later when we moved back to America they would be beaten senseless by school yard bullies befuddled by their lilting Oxford accent. “I say, old fellow, you’re acting a bit bohemian, aren’t you?”
A narrow pig eyed squint, “ Say that again, French fry”.
“ I believe you’ve mistaken my English accent for French. This happens when one is denied a proper public school education or spends too much time in one’s abode in his trailer park.” More squinting and clenched fists.“ I’m not sure what you just said but I’m gonna ‘a-bode’ you.”
At school, we had to buy our children “rubbers”, apply first aid with “plasters” and hear them snicker about someone “snogging” in the Tesco “ car park”. My misunderstandings became graver when the cable installation man casually admitted to me that he was going outside to “smoke a fag”. I was about to dial the local constable to report a hate crime in process when my spouse told me to relax that he was merely taking a cigarette break. Even Dave, our handy man and perhaps the world’s slowest moving human being in the UK, ran circles around me as he incessantly complained about “prats”, “poofs” and “whinging, mental birds”.
On weekends, we would periodically escape suburban London with a drive down the A3 motorway to visit the children’s favorite farm in Surrey. At a certain roundabout, we would exit on to a small frontage road where a home and garden store offered prefabricated garden sheds. A very visible billboard promised, “Buy Today and Get a Free Erection”.
I returned to America with a confused vocabulary of idioms, euphemisms, double entendres and suffering from tedious circumlocution. I started noticing the strange American oxymoronic phrases and odd grammatical habits that were woven into my daily routines. For example, why is it that one must help clean up the house because the cleaners are coming to clean? Why do women watch the Food Channel while exercising at the gym?
Is there such a thing as a “non-working mother”?
I am told my “kids will stay healthy if they get dirty” and that if “I want to keep something, I should let it go”. I am reminded that “sinners make the best saints” and that sometimes, I must be “cruel to be kind”. Someone told me years ago as I moved away from California that sometimes “a person has to leave a place in order to be able to return”. After twenty years of marriage, I know that “silence can be deafening” and the fact that sometimes, you must “surrender if you want to win.”
Is it possible to be “pretty ugly?” Do stripper’s have dressing rooms? What exactly is a “butt head?”
The English language can also be wonderfully descriptive as evidenced by the use of collective nouns in the nature. If you are an ornithologist, you might spy a “charm” of finches, a “parliament” of owls, a “murder” of crows, a “ wake” of buzzards, a “siege” of cranes, an “ implausibility” of gnus or an “exultation” of larks. I even invented some of my own collective nouns. What about a “cyst” of politicians, a “stink” of (teenaged) boys, a “fang” of (teenaged) girls and a “neoplasm” of reality TV stars? On the range, you might spy a “sinew” of cowboys. In a pretentious club, one might be seated next to a “vacuum” of bachelors or dance with a “scandal” of debutantes. At a town hall meeting, is it possible one might endure a “purgatory” of speakers?
Language is, in the end, a dense boreal forest where one can easily stray from a footpath and get snagged on an oxymoron, injured by an idiom, captivated by a collective noun or mangled on a malaprop. Yet, the forest provides all that we need once we learn to respect it and recognize its subtle signs and hidden treasures. Palaver can be domesticated and tamed; and when properly cultivated, language can yield a rich bounty, even to the most amateur of verbal pioneers.
It’s just like your parents used to say, “I’m not going to tell you, but I told you so…”