Winnowing Out the Bad Words

Every writer makes a transition in which he goes from being bold and erratic to precise and accurate. I don’t mean facts.

It’s the words, stupid. It used to be the economy back before it became a football to be tossed back and forth between political parties.

Everyone has memories that cause shudders of regret. Even now failed dates, not that there was an overabundance during my formative years, cause chills and goose bumps. Oh, how stupid, how naïve, was I. If I’d played it right, she and I might be married right now, and I wouldn’t be sitting here wondering whatever happened to Betty Jean Mabel So-and-So.

Some of the memories I’ve been unable to suppress involve times when I was trying to convince people I was smarter than I was. There’s an old joke about those mischievous twins Jimmy and Johnny (who today are undoubtedly named Jason and Justin):

AT BEDTIME, THE NIGHT BEFORE EASTER

Jimmy: “You know, I feel like I’m about to blossom into manhood.”

Johnny: “Me, too.”

Jimmy: “We need to do something about it, you know, let everybody know we done grown up.”

Johnny: “Huh. You’re sure right. Reckon what we could do?”

Jimmy: “Well, it seems like to me that the first things folks do when they get grown up is they start using cuss words.”

Johnny: “It do seem like that’s true.”

Jimmy: “I tell you what. I’ll get me a cuss word, and you get you a cuss word, and next chance we get, we’ll just th’ow it out there and see what happens.”

Johnny: “All right, yeah, that’ll work. What word you gon’ use?”

Jimmy: “Hell. Aw, hell. Hell, what you think you doing? I like that.”

Johnny: “Me, too. Hell, why’d you get to go first?”

Jimmy: “That’s my word. You get your own.”

Johnny: “All right, then, I will. You bet your sweet ass. I’m gonna take a whole sentence.”

Jimmy: “I wish I’d thought of it.”

BREAKFAST, EASTER MORNING. THE TWINS, ALL DUDED UP IN THEIR EASTER SUITS, SIT ACROSS FROM EACH OTHER AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE, DAD READING THE PAPER, MOM FIXING BREAKFAST.

Mom: “What would you like for breakfast, Jimmy?”

Jimmy: “Aw, hell, Mom, gimme some Cheerios.”

WITHOUT A WORD, DAD BACKHANDS LITTLE JIMMY, WHO FALLS BACKWARDS INTO THE REFRIGERATOR AND LIES THERE IN A HEAP. HE STARES DEFIANTLY AT JOHNNY.

Mom: “What would you like for breakfast, Johnny?”

Johnny: “Uh, you bet your sweet ass it ain’t Cheerios.”

I suppose this joke doesn’t age particularly well, since, if, in fact, Dad had backhanded Jimmy and sent him sprawling, instead of saying “you bet your sweet ass,” Johnny would today have called Social Services on his cell phone and had Dad slapped with community service and counseling.

When I was relatively fresh from the halls of academe, I tried too hard to impress people, too. I’d go out drinking with the other writers, everyone else would hold court and tell “war stories,” and I didn’t have any, so I just tried feebly to impress the rest with my vocabulary. Particularly if a lot of beer was involved, as it frequently was, I’d throw out the occasional word whose meaning wasn’t altogether clear. I knew it was a word, but I was only vaguely aware of where it lived.

Over time, and by trial and error, I built my knowledge of the allegedly native tongue. This involved a dictionary nearby. Eventually, what penetrated the brain, encased in my hard head, was the knowledge that the right word was superior to the large one. Large ones are fine but only when right.

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