October 2021 . . . .

“Not At All Resembling a Rant”

What do you do with a language that has the words compost, compute, compote, combust, combine, commune, and comport, wandering willy-nilly through sentences all at the same time? And along those same lines, don’t get me started with comport, report, purport, transport, import, support, deport, and carport. My mom and I spend a lot of time on the telephone checking in on each other to make sure that we’re each OK in the time of Covid, and wonder about such things. You see, we lose words, from time to time. She’s 93 and comes by it naturally. It doesn’t trouble her much; when she’s telling me about someone she used to know back in the day, and suddenly she can’t remember the name of the town where they met, or what it was that they did for a living. “Well, I guess that’s gone,” she says to me, and I tell her not to worry — that I put a pin in it for when she does remember. It happens to everyone.

We keep talking, Mom and I. We muddle through.

“I can’t do the newer crossword puzzles,” she reflects, “because they have all of those current pop references. Who is L’il Nas X? What is a twerk? And I can’t do the old ones because all the words are slipping away.” They’re not really slipping away, I say with a modicum of frustration for the unfinished Sunday puzzle in my lap. It’s our language. It’s full of vocabulary that is intended to confound even the most erudite of us. Or rather, them.

No, I don’t tell my Mom what “twerk” means. I draw the line.

I know what she means. It’s a full-time job for some part of our brains to keep all the words in their proper order, filed with the right definitions and usages. Otherwise, we have chaos. And it doesn’t help that the pop culture — and by that I mean all of it, from the 24-hour news cycle talking heads to the Instagram meme-creators and propagators — insists on ruining words. Like “fake.” Or “efficacy.” It’s not OK to take a good, simple word like fake and use it so often that it is befouled with the constant context of that usage. Fake smells bad now. It was never fresh to begin with, but today it really stinks. I implore you to put it away, in a Ziploc. Find out what the half-life is for such an odor.

We, Mom and I, each sit in front of an old New York Times puzzle, bound in a large print compendium. I bought two copies and sent one to her. We’re mutually baffled by the fact that the editor of this volume chose to leave out the titles of the puzzles — an important tool indicating the direction of some of the clues within. So instead of having a vague idea what “Bronx Five Takes a Little Off the Top,” might possibly mean, it’s just annoying. Of course, clever often manifests as annoying. And Mom has become fractious in her dotage. I think she misses doing the puzzles with my Dad, who cheated when he worked them with her in the quiet time between after-church and dinner, when he hoped that there was a fresh peach or two left on the kitchen counter ripe enough to cut and eat, mix it with some blueberries in the fridge into a bowl with a little sugar sprinkled on them. Just a bit of fruit compote. Pop would read clues to her having already worked them out — just to make it a team effort, to be able to grin and say “exactly!” while writing in the answer with his pen, to have that time together with Mom sharing something. Of course, she would sometimes get up from her chair and take the puzzle away from him and fill in the boxes of clues he didn’t know. He liked the wordplay. Mom, I know now, as her new crossword partner, likes the steadiness of it. Appreciated that there may very well be words that now exist only to be placed into crossword puzzles.

For example, the term “adit.” Which means a horizontal passage leading into a mine for the purposes of access or drainage.

I enjoy the games within the puzzles, and often end up with the feeling that our language is just a jumble of syllables that sound similar with no commonality whatsoever but to make the people creating the clues think they’re clever. Nevertheless, I experience unbridled joy by unravelling that Bronx Five is not a cross-town highway or a jazz combo but Joe DiMaggio, and taking a little off the top is not illegally skimming funds but a haircut, and so the answer to the clue is “YANKEECLIPPER.”

Those of us who still like language, the luxuriousness of words with many, many definitions, who love to expand our vocabulary just to do it, so that we might have pusillanimous at our fingertips or know what a deadly-venomous golden lancehead viper is and where, on an island just off the coast of Brazil, it is the top of the food chain. Well, we are troubled. We’re the grammar police. We’re insufferable, only they don’t use that word, because they don’t know that word.

I recently heard someone use the word abscess in the place of the word obsess. I was going to correct them, or at least ask if they meant something different, but I did not. Correcting someone has gone the way of the dodo, like using the term “going the way of the dodo.” At the time, they were obsessing about the TV show “The Bachelor,” so they may actually have been referring to an abscess, but I’m pretty sure it was just a lingual hiccup. (And I choose to coin that term because I don’t know what it is when someone does this — replaces a word with an almost-homonym. Which isn’t a thing.)

Lingual hiccup. We all have them. I just discovered, finally, the pronunciation for the word “amalgam,” which I kept trying to shoehorn into my vocabulary as ah-mul-gahm instead of the proper uh-MALL-gum. Who cares about my mispronunciation? My friend John, who thinks that the English language is declining like the Roman Empire, only way faster.

Mom and I (in truth, mostly me, but she enjoys my calls anyhow) talked recently about what the person was thinking who named a particular warship a “frigate.” Certainly this was a coincidence rather than correlation, nor causal to any sinkings. Oh, frig it anyhow. (See, it’s funny! Well, in a dad-joke sort of way.)

And it has been brought to my attention that while homonyms are words that are spelled alike and sound alike but mean two different things — rose the flower and rose up from my seat at the table — Homophones can be spelled alike, too, but don’t have to be — rain, rein, and reign. My answer to that? Kill me with noxious gas or a chunk of coal.

You know, either ether or ore.