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Your Birds Are All Wackwards

This is a nugget from the vault, a piece I wrote before JH.com was born. Beginning as it does with the verbal misalacrity [sic] of a former American President, it might seem a bit dated, but it’s mostly about words, about loving, about learning and about learning to love words. 

Who knew, apart from the good folks of Texas, that Mr. Bush would be so entertaining? So creative? One of the great cyber-parlour games going—I’ve had samples passed on to me from several directions—is the collection of “Bush-isms”, perverse and delightful nuggets of tangled syntax and malapropism unbound. (See www.bushfollies.comfor a thoroughly biased view of the Dubya presidency.) They are designed, of course, to mock this most powerful man, to express astonished alarm that someone apparently so

Not to mention “nukular”, my (non)fave mispronunciation. Or “Mission Accomplished!” on a Persian Gulf aircraft carrier, our best symbol of the marriage between materialism and the disposition to dominate.

inarticulate should have the ear of the world and the power to bend it.

For Canadians typically avid for a chance to smirk at Americans, Quotations from Chairman Bush are manna from Internet heaven. Some of them, no doubt, are maliciously taken out of contxt, or are carved from the sort of hesitant, circular pronouncements most of us make in conversation. But gosh, as someone who adores creativity in language, I confess to bemused admiration for his verbal achievements.

The poet Coleridge defined poetry as “the right words in the right order”. Mr. Bush shows a genius not just for choosing le mot juste, but for inventing it, and his ordering of words has a mad artistry to it. Listen! He “will not stand for the subsidation of failure”, and once noted of his political opponents that “they misunderestimated me”. (Note to my spell-checker:  everything’s fine.  Relax.)  Bush’s compassionate and poetic vision sings in statements like “I know how hard it is to put food on your family” and (my favourite) “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dreams.” Are you listening now? And my goodness, we should celebrate poetry wherever we find it, not just in the wit and wisdom of the mighty. I have loved it in children, from the wee one watching mommy and daddy work and asking, over and over, “What are duning?” to a five-year-old’s interest in the movies of “Arnold Sportsenegger”.

In my English classes, students have been a rich source of wonder, especially in their attempts to sound profoundly wise (maybe this is where George comes in). And my earnest efforts over keyboard and ballpoint pale beside the easy brilliance of smart people who don’t fuss and strain themselves over mere words; okay, I’m referring to my wife, but who’s keeping score?  (Yes, Diana, there is a scant applause…)

Twisted student syntax and neologisms on the run have not just brought chuckles to my teaching days, but sometimes a crazy backdoor perception, too. It is easy to lament the limitations of the student who wrote of studying a family tree to learn more about her “auntsister’s”, but isn’t that a fascinating construction? When another wrote of “infutility”, I wasn’t sure whether he referred to productive hope or reproductive failure (or both!). One writer criticized our school’s “mediocrisy” (what a wonderful word, a name for the banality of hypocrites). The high point of an essay on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea spoke movingly of the struggle of Santiago with the marlin, and his endurance of “extruganating pain”. In heated debate, one pupil protested “But you’re only thinking in terms of what you’re thinking!”  (Guilty as charged.)

Asked about the travels of one of my former students, a friend of hers replied, “She’s back, but I don’t know where back is.” (I was instantly reminded of a great line from a Sports Illustrated piece on the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali’s knockout of George Foreman in Zaire: “He tried to get up, but he didn’t know which way it was.”) Another young scholar wrote, “Respect towards our elders has delinquished dramatically”; the concepts of “diminished”, “relinquished” and “delinquent” are neatly joined in one superb verb. It’s not what he wanted to say, but I loved the notion of the “self-fulfilling proficiency” offered by one young scholar. He’s right; proficiency has that very effect. In preparing to dramatize a social situation, one of my charges came up with this bit of Zen philosophy: “We could just pretend to be who we are.”  Students who wrote of the pain caused by “racial blurs” and “low self-of-steam” (!) and “the inane corruption of humanity”, it seems to me, have blithely captured the essence of these problems.

Not only do my students enlighten me, but I also have a live-in generator of original expressions. My bride is, as Dubya might say, “in the forethought of [her] thinking”; it is not her way to mull and ponder over just the right words to say. Unlike me, she rarely has the experience of afterwards wishing she’d said something different, because she simply thinks aloud, and they’re just words, anyhow. Whatever happens, happens, such as her naming, in the game Tabu, “a big round thing that flies in the sky” (“It’s a bimbo!”), or the time she urgently had to find a restroom “before my burder blasts”. Once, my wife swore she was on the brink of “a wreckless nervedown, NO, a nervous wreckdown!” She effortlessly creates new and vibrant vocabulary by combining tired old words into exciting new combinations: one day she was just “plogging along” through her expense account calculations; on another, she referred to some shady character “slurking towards me” on a downtown street (lurking? slipping? slinking?); a sling for carrying babies on one’s back was termed a “baboose”.

I trust you’ve heard of “Sniglets”, collections of words that don’t exist, but should:  in this linguistic funhouse, “frust” is the last line of dust that the broom can’t quite push on to the dustpan; “wondricide” is the act of murdering a piece of bread with butter straight from the fridge. Comedian Rich Hall and others have strained to come up with these delights, but my girl fires them off without a thought! Towards the end of summer, she was concerned about hot the room was. “We don’t have the thermos on, do we?” It’s not quite a Sniglet, but it’s an enjoyable re-purposing of a good old word. I tease her about being an E.S.L. student despite her southern Ontario upbringing; a former dancer, her first language was movement, impulse, action. And like my students, her occasional odd statements often conceal some sage advice or understanding. As we contemplated marriage, I found myself unable to contradict this gem:  “If it’s good, it can’t be bad!”  Urged not to rush too fast, to remain grounded in the moment, she responded, “I think we will be great in the present.” Having married a coach with three sporty sons, she was eager to try her hand at basketball, saying, with characteristic enthusiasm, “I’m determined to be a natural!” And after having a good laugh about it, I realized that’s what I wanted to be, too.

Dylan Thomas could make words dance, too. He described his poetry as “the shape and style of words as they run, jump, hum and gallop along”. Mr. Bush’s words, like those of many of us, seem to stumble and stagger along (“stumber”? “staggle!”), but it surely is fun to listen. So let us praise famous men, lovely women, and stumbering students in their quest for expression. We need more creativity, laughter, and philosophy, and to find them all in the same small package of words is sweetness upon sweet.  But I still have to wonder about our boy George.

Comment (1)

  1. Carol Etkin

    Hey James –
    My fave word contraction is “technidiot”. I use this to describe my own poor abilities with the new and continually advancing world of tech devices: a technological idiot becomes a “technidiot”. Feel free to use it if you like it.
    Warmest regards.

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