Like most poets, I obsess about finding the word that says exactly what I’m trying to say; close enough isn’t good enough. I might take all day deciding between “outraged” and “indignant,” then change my mind the next morning.
It irritates me when someone calls his boss a “Nazi” because she wants him to show up to work on time. And I’m sure the toilet bowl cleaner in that TV commercial cleans toilets just swell. But “revolutionary?” Yet as nutty as I can be about word choices, there’s one area where I not only tolerate, but often enjoy hearing a word that’s not exactly “right”: when I’m listening to young people talk.
An adolescent boy once walked up to me at a potluck dinner and asked, “Did you make the spinach salad?” When I pled guilty he gave me a big grin. “It was really awesome,” he said.
The finger-wagging fusspot in me was miffed. “Awesome?” he huffed. “That word should be reserved for the Pyramids and Niagra Falls. Or to describe the sound of a dozen jet fighters screaming by a hundred feet over your head. These young people…harummmph....”
Yeah yeah yeah…all true. But it was nice to see a kid excited about a salad. And my salad, which I have to admit was delicious: baby spinach, wild mushrooms, garlic croutons, roasted beets, thin-sliced red onions, and a world-class blue cheese dressing.
Language mutates and evolves whether we like it or not, and all attempts to keep it preserved in amber are doomed. Just look at the comical efforts of L'Académie française—the guardians of the French language—to suppress “Franglish.” (“le week-end”…”je suis tired”). They might as well stand in the middle of a storm, collecting rain in teacups and throwing it back up to the clouds.
Many of the shifts in language come from young people, in the form of slang, or when they use words like “awesome” or “diva” in ways that—for better or worse—become part of common usage. And sometimes when they make “mistakes” I think they’re actually improving on the originals. Like the preschooler who once told me, with great seriousness, that her grandfather has “Old Timer’s Disease.” Or the adolescent boy waiting behind me to cross at the light, complaining to his friend about a teacher:
“So he said he didn’t like what we were doing and he was going to ‘nip it in the butt.’”
“Actually, that’s not what he said.”
“What do you mean? Dude, I was there.”
“Nope. What he said was ‘nip it in the bud.’ When you don’t want a flower to grow, you pinch the top off. The bud. You nip it in the bud, not the ‘butt.’
(Long pause) “Oh…”
Björk, the Icelandic pop singer, was once asked if she’d rather her countrymen write song lyrics in their native language instead of sometimes not-quite perfect English. She much preferred the latter.
“We misunderstand English so beautifully,” she said…
Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. He is author of the novella, "Spin Cycles," to be published by Gemma Media in Fall of 2014. Charles is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He has been selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.”